For all its flaws — and there are many — Book of Shadows, the quickie sequel to 1999′s runaway indie hit The Blair Witch Project, has one key element in common with its predecessor: the gut-wrenching horror of people arguing with each other, on and on, pointlessly. (In my more fanciful moments, I suspect that the real secret of the first Blair Witch‘s success was that it was an ooh-spooky version of The Jerry Springer Show, all yammering confrontation without meaning.) This sequel, which pretends the first Blair Witch was a fiction film that could have been based in fact, follows five twentysomethings into the barren woods of Burkittsville, where they mysteriously lose several hours of their lives. They wake up the next morning remembering nothing, though they know something has happened; the video cameras positioned all around their camp have caught teasing glimpses of this something, but meanwhile the quintet occupy a lot of screen time quarreling over what the footage means.
Not much, as it turns out. Book of Shadows is meant to be a metaphysical, guess-what’s-real head game for the age of the Avid, but in essence it’s just a feature-length retread of the famously nagging final shot of the first Blair Witch. A movie can lap-dance you with the unknown for only so long before it eventually has to come across; the sequel does, but it’s less satisfying than dispiriting. The movie works up to a big revelation that doesn’t surprise anyone; did the filmmakers lose sight of their own audience, which is hip enough to catch on?
The group of five — tour guide Jeffrey Donovan, indignant Wiccan Erica Leerhsen, sneering goth chick Kim Director, and troubled couple Tristan Skyler and Stephen Barker Turner (who are working on a book about the Blair Witch legend) — head into the bleak woods, hoping to catch traces of something, if indeed there is something. One good idea thrown away in Book of Shadows is that few people really take the Blair Witch thing all that seriously; the site of the famous murders is a kitschy tourist trap, luring curiosity seekers from all over the world (as the actual shooting locations of the original movie did). For a while, Book of Shadows seems interested in deconstructing all the myth and hype that gathered around The Blair Witch Project and then starting fresh. It goes stale fast, though.
After the black-out, during which all the camera equipment is destroyed but the tapes are mysteriously deposited in the same spot where Heather’s tapes were reportedly found, the group heads back to Jeffrey’s isolated hang-out in the woods, where he sells Blair Witch memorabilia and maintains a state-of-the-art video studio with stolen equipment. Everyone sits down to watch the tapes, which reveal, little by little, what happened that night. Individually, they also have weird dreams and visions that seem connected to the long-ago Blair Witch murders. After a while the inevitable finger-pointing begins. Something strange happened, and the Wiccan is responsible! No, wait, it’s the goth chick! No, obviously it’s the tour guide!
This gets old as quickly as you’d expect (at least the quarreling over the lost map in the first Blair Witch didn’t feel quite so much like a bad Twilight Zone episode). The director, Joe Berlinger (who cowrote the script with Dick Beebe, writer of 1999′s House on Haunted Hill remake, which had similar freak-out scenes), comes from documentaries — brilliant ones, actually, the best-known being the Paradise Lost films he co-directed. Here he seems to be trying something so deep-dish with a story so shallow that the depth dries out. Berlinger appears to be saying that reality as experienced by the characters (and as captured by Berlinger’s film camera) is false, and that the true reality can only be seen on the unforgiving medium of video. He blurts this out when he has a character say something like “Film lies; video is truth.” Yet when we finally see the videos in their full Dionysian horror (or what passes for it), we don’t know why it’s the truth. Once again, that devilish unseen Blair Witch is messing around with people’s heads. She sure seems to like to pick on wannabe documentary filmmakers, though; it’s as if she wanted to work her evil only on those in a position to record her witchery. I’d say you have nothing to worry about in the woods of Burkittsville as long as you don’t have a camcorder with you.
I am far from a fan of the first Blair Witch, which turned out, rather embarrassingly for its admirers, to have been ripped off from the far better shot-on-video horror project The Last Broadcast. And even before that, movies like Cannibal Holocaust (from 1978, mind you) dealt with the “group of documentary filmmakers met their doom and here’s their footage” premise. But at least Blair Witch had an air of otherworldly strangeness about it; the hand-held camera pulled you into the position of being with the three protagonists (whether you wanted to be with these three whiners was another story). Book of Shadows has no such you-are-there hook; we’re just observers here, and what we observe is the usual hack and slash, served to us in grisly flashes. After a while, the movie becomes ugly and unpleasant, and finally just irritating. The arguing goes on and on, until you just want someone to die so you can go home already. If Joe Berlinger wanted to break into narrative filmmaking, he should’ve picked a film with a narrative.