Following the massive success of The Blair Witch Project, Artisan Films wanted a sequel, sooner rather than later. Artisan got in touch with the writers/directors of the first film, but they turned Artisan down, saying they wanted to wait a few years to make a great sequel. After that Artisan commissioned 3 separate scripts for a Blair Witch 2 and went in search of a director.
At the same time, documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger was meeting with Artisan to try to get his own film made. Artisan passed on it, but asked him if he would be interested in the Blair Witch sequel. After reading the scripts he said he didn’t like any of them, but instead pitched his own idea for the film. Artisan immediately hired him to begin work on it, the film that would become Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2.
The film opens with an actually somewhat delightful montage that shows the public reaction to The Blair Witch Project and more importantly interviews with people in the ‘real Burkittsville’. Yes, in this movie, The Blair Witch Project was a fictional film; with this claiming to take place in the the “real world”. We learn that following the film’s release “Blair Witch-mania” has struck the small town of Burkittsville with people flocking to see the woods and hope to catch a glimpse of the witch.
One fan of the film, an area native named Jeff (Jeffrey Donovan, Burn Notice) has decided to cash in on the phenomenon and start up the “Blair Witch Hunter” tour service to show the sites of the film and sell a bunch of merch. Book of Shadows then follows his crew as strange things happen to them on the tour and ultimately change their lives forever.
Book of Shadows is a hard film to write about. It’s not a horrible film by any means, and it certainly has some very clever ideas contained within it. The main problem is those are sprinkled inside a very generic and poorly constructed Late 90’s/Early 2000’s horror film. You know the kind; very quick cuts and flashes of things, weird unlikable characters who are just caricatures of genre stereotypes and nu-metal. Oh god the nu-metal.
Following opening credits and Marilyn Manson song, we meet the tour group: Erica (a Wiccan), Kim (A goth with psychic powers. Seriously) and husband and wife Steven and Tristan (Both writers: one a skeptic of the Blair Witch, one a believer). They go out camping at the site of Rustin Parr’s now burned down home and have a ‘crazy party’ that would make Party Cop from Cabin Fever proud. Erica reaches out to the Blair Witch with her Wiccan powers and Kim has a vision that Tristan is pregnant. Then they proceed to get high and drink until they’re shitfaced.
Upon awaking after a black out, they find their camp trashed and all their cameras and shit destroyed/stolen. Unable to remember what happened, psychic girl again has a vision that the tapes from their cameras are in what’s left of the foundation of Parr’s home, the same place the Blair Witch Project footage was claimed to be found in that film.
…Then Tristan has a miscarriage.
She is surprisingly released from the hospital like an hour later and instead of getting the fuck out of there, the tour group goes back to Jeff’s house to watch the tapes to see what happened to them at night.
Cut throughout this entire first section is a bunch of random flashes of people being stabbed, tied up and tortured. We also see cuts to police interrogation sequences featuring Jeff, Kim, and Steven, and very brief scenes of Jeff in a mental institution. They also bring up a plot point where apparently Jeff had extensive files on the tour members, including childhood pictures and shit. However, the film immediately (seriously, like 30 seconds later) drops this plot point entirely and it’s never mentioned again. This movie loves to do a bunch of random shit and repeatedly switch time periods to confuse you, so have no idea what’s going on.
One of my favorite examples of this is a scene shortly after Steven tucks Tristan into bed at Jeff’s. He goes down to the kitchen and runs into Erica. Erica ends up kissing Steven and next thing you know they’re making out and ripping each other’s clothes off, about to fuck on Jeff’s kitchen table feet from his wife who just miscarried.
Erica then reaches up and slashes Steven’s stomach, blood gushing out by the gallons as he’s disemboweled.
…Then it smash cuts to them both sitting on opposite sides of the table, fully clothed, not saying a word. I guess that scene never happened? Did they imagine it? They both act pretty normal to each other afterwards so I don’t really understand.
The acting in this film is not particularly great. There are a few nice moments from Steven (His breakdown at the police station is quite good), but Kim and the others are passable. Jeff especially is bad, hamming it up from start to finish. There are some scenes where his line delivery and emoting does not mesh with the other actors at all, like it was lifted entirely from some other scene.
In the last act of the film, there is a twist that comes into play. Basically this movie pulls a High Tension on the audience, letting the audience know that what they saw didn’t actually happen as shown. People end up dead and the people you are supposed to think didn’t do it probably did it. There are quite a few things telegraphing this twist, like the flash forwards to the interrogations and the random shots of people being stabbed, which ruin the reveal and any suspense.
When Berlinger made his pitch, and all through filming, he was trying to subvert the first film and its marketing. He stated that he did not want to just rehash the first film, and he wasn’t fond of how it was pushed as real in an attempt to deceive viewers. He wanted to explore the idea of blurring the lines between fiction and reality and how that effects people, so this theme is explored throughout Book of Shadows. The characters of the film were also meant to be archetypal of the population’s reaction to Blair Witch Project; from those who felt the film portrayed their culture in a bad light (Erica) to the scholars debating the film’s authenticity (Tristan & Steve) to those fascinated with the occult and the film (Kim) and even those trying to exploit the film’s popularity for their own gain (Jeff). There is so many of these messages peppered throughout Book of Shadows, but there were even more Artisan stepped in.
After Berlinger turned in his film, Artisan objected to it. They felt the film was too psychological and not enough of a traditional horror film. They ordered him to do re-shoots, which included adding in all the random gratuitous shots of people being killed and the scenes of Jeff institutionalized.He was also told to remove almost all references in the film to The Blair Witch Project being fictional, in an attempt to keep that more ambiguous. They also required him to insert the interrogation flash forwards, which were just re-used clips from the film’s third act, weakening the climax. All of these changes also neutered the film in that it made Jeff seem very sinister from the start and pretty much took away the audience’s protagonist.
While he studio meddling hurt the film, its pretty apparent from the finished product that the there were problems with it already. The film has many interesting ideas, but they weren’t executed very well and that was just compounded by the edits. While I am sure a director’s cut would be an improvement of sorts, in it’s current form I can’t recommend the film. This would be one to check out only if you’re really curious about it
James once worked with a Wiccan for a year or so, who said she buried her dead dog beneath an apple tree in her backyard so she could ingest apples infused with her dog’s molecules. That’s pretty much the extent of his knowledge on the subject.