Director: Joe Berlinger
Cast: Kim Director, Jeffrey Donovan, Erica Leerhsen, Tristine Skyler, Stephen Barker Turner
Screenplay: Dick Beebe, Joe Berlinger
90 mins. Rated R for violence, language, sexuality and drug use.
Following up a cultural phenomenon like The Blair Witch Project would be pretty tough. Just a short time after the found-footage film found an audience, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 came about. The film is a drastically different take on the mythology, taking on a traditional horror movie vibe and losing the found-footage marker, Book of Shadows elected to acknowledge the first film as a film that may or may not be real, and the effect it had on the residents of Burkittsville, Maryland. A lofty goal, one that almost shouldn’t work on principle, and in fact, the film faltered at the box office and critical stage, so let’s visit this sequel as I finally take a stab at Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2.
In the short time since the release of the hit “documentary” The Blair Witch Project, the town of Burkittsville has been overrun with tourists and fans of the movie all wanting to be a part of the hype. Jeff (Jeffrey Donovan, Sicario, Hitch), a local fanboy, has started offering “tours” of the locations from the film. Jeff takes four young people on a trip into the woods, but they find that this venture carries some dire consequences, ones with the power to unravel the very fabric of their psyches.
It is ironic that a director who primarily works on documentaries chose to make a straightforward sequel instead of a faux doc, but that’s exactly what Joe Berlinger (Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes) did just that, and his heart is in the right place. He had an ambitious take on the material, choosing to critique the faux documentary style of the original as well as fanaticism concerning death and dread. He’s asking questions about why we follow the darkness, why we find ourselves drawn to real horror, which is interesting considering he’s dealt with real horror as a director in a lot of his projects. The problem is that he wasn’t seemingly on the same page as the studio, and interference from the higher-ups was its downfall, choosing to add more gore, violence, and jump scares to a more thoughtful and mood-based horror film. Whether or not Berlinger’s original cut would be any better remains to be seen, but sure, I’d be all for #ReleaseTheBerlingerCut if the movement so chooses.
That’s not to say that this film is awful like most reviewers upon release. It’s just not very good either. The film is at its strongest when it dives into the mythology of the Blair Witch. I feel like Book of Shadows did a lot of mythology heavy-lifting here, really adding a lot more to the Blair Witch mythos (it’s also very important to point out Thorn Celtic symbol that appears in the film, perhaps as a nod to Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers). The concept works better than it should, and the story has enough meat on it to become interesting if executed properly. That just didn’t really happen.
Even with the studio interference, there’s no excusing some of the choppy and dull dialogue at play here. The characters are pretty stock, not contributing anything of complete value, and the jumping around in the narrative is an interesting frame (one that was done by the studio), but it never really amounts to anything that makes its existence meaningful.
Book of Shadows is actually a pretty admirable effort, but its many problems do outweigh the wins. The movie is not awful, but it is far from good. There are elements of Book of Shadows that work quite well. There are just far more that don’t. In that way, it’s very similar to its predecessor. They both have strengths and flaws, but flaws are stronger. Fans of The Blair Witch Project should really give this one a try, but I’m doubtful that it can sway anyone else.
-Kyle A. Goethe