Hooray! Halloween is coming! As the nights grow chillier, the shadows creep in and things start to go bump in the night, there’s nothing more exciting than dimming the lights, lighting up some jack-o-lanterns, sinking some shots, stuffing your face with sweeties and curling up on the sofa, ready to let a scary movie sink its claws into you. Whatever you do, though, for the love of God, just make sure that movie isn’t he execrable Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2.
In 1999, The Blair Witch Project was a surprise lo-fi, low budget, runaway success thanks, in part, to its ingenious, revolutionary online marketing campaign and also to its inventive mockumentary premise. Though not completely original (Cannibal Holocaust did something similar back in 1980), this surprise package successfully terrified enough unwitting audiences to make sure that its place in horror film history was assured. Blair Witch fever gripped popular culture, with a slew of imitators closely following the picture’s smart ‘found footage’ premise. Clearly looking to strike while the iron was still hot, Haxan Films hastily rushed a sequel into production, though with very minimal input from Blair Witch writer/directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, who stayed on board as executive producers. Taking over on writing duties were Dicky Beebe, scripter on 1999’s passable House on Haunted Hill and Joe Berlinger, previously only known for his successful documentary work on films like 1996’s Paradise Lost, who would also direct. Amongst horror fans, the signs were mildly encouraging that the film, though released barely a year after the original, might hold up as a passable piece of solid entertainment.
How wrong we were: Book of Shadows is an absolute stinker. I can honestly say I’ve had better bowel movements. So, if you’ve accidentally rented this one, I would open a beer immediately and prepare yourself – it’s gonna be a long, dark night of the soul…
Quick, get that furst beer down you as fast as you can. Don’t worry, this flick ain’t gonna make a damn bit of sense anyway. We begin with the mildly confusing blurb: ‘The following is a fictionalised re-enactment of events that occurred after the release of The Blair Witch Project.’
Ok, so let’s get things straight. The first film was a mock documentary, which was a crucial factor in its chilling effectiveness: it led you to question if what you were seeing was actually real. It was a neat trick and it was very well done. With this one they clearly couldn’t be bothered to go down the documentary trail again. This is fair enough, as the original spawned so many imitators that trying something else for the follow-up could be seen as a brave move. However, the blurb is still asking to believe that what we are about to see is supposedly-kind-of real as well. It’s a ‘re-enactment.’ Cool. But it’s also ‘fictionalised.’ Wait, what?
We are then told that the film is ‘based on public records, local Maryland TV broadcasts and hundreds of hours of taped interviews. To protect the privacy of certain individuals some names have been changed.’ So, there’s allegedly ‘hundreds of hours’ of tapes. How many of these do we see? Absolutely zero. Uhuh.
So, they kind of want us to believe that it’s a sort-of documentary, though it’s all just done by actors, sorry ‘re-enactment.’ And all this, despite getting in Berlinger, a man who until now has exclusively made documentaries. Genius! So, effectively, what it boils down to is we’ve got a dramatic feature film, pretending (reeeeeaally badly) that it’s a documentary, directed by a guy who has no clue how to make feature films. Still with me? No? Don’t worry, here comes Kurt Loder to explain and make everything better…
Yes, in an effort to make things just a teensy-weensy bit believable, Kurt Loder, he of MTV News fame, appears as himself as part of an opening montage of bogus news reports to introduce the Blair Witch phenomenon and explain what has happened since the release of the first film. It’s all very postmodern and these scenes are admittedly quite cool and clever. Sadly, this is as good and, indeed, as coherent as this festering scab of a movie ever gets.
Berlinger’s film picks up five years after the events of the first film and in this bizarre mockumentary fantasy world, a group of young tourists are so in awe of Sanchez and Myrick’s picture that they arrive inBurkitsville,Marylandto embark on the ‘Blair Witch Hunt’ tour to explore the same woods where their favourite movie was filmed. Along for the ride are the impeccably dull Stephen (Stephen Barker Turner) and his characterless pregnant girlfriend Tristen (Tristine Skyler), carrying out research for a book on the witch; Kim, an annoyingly listless goth who is apparently psychic; token eye-candy and self-proclaimed ‘wiccan’ Erica, who’s keen to bore us to tears with the ‘truth’ about witchcraft (the Blair Witch is just ‘misunderstood,’ apparently); and goateed tour guide Jeffrey (Jeffrey Donovan), who appears to be a few sandwiches short of a picnic, if a bewildering series of flashbacks showing him with tubes up his nose in a nuthouse are to be believed. After a few minutes in the company these underwritten, self-assured ‘kooky misfits,’ chattering inanely about the first film to fanboy levels, it’s hard not to wish that very bad things will happen to them.
It swiftly transpires that this ‘tour’ really just consists of going up to the woods, visiting the ruins of the house from the first movie, dicking about with video cameras and getting gloriously shitfaced. My kind of tour! That’s when the bad stuff happens…
Drink up, it gets worse.
This flick can only get by so far on the good faith generated by the original. You are almost ready to forgive the writers for filling the cast with such a bunch of vexatious nineties caricatures, but the moment the picture switches from documentary style to traditional narrative storytelling, the filmmakers’ weaknesses are laid totally bare. For a big-budget sequel to a film that made millions, the film, though glossy, still looks horribly cheap and nasty, like so many bargain basement direct-to-video clunkers directed by the likes of Uwe Boll and Ulli Lommel. The campfire scenes, supposedly set in the same woods as the first film, are horribly lit and look as though they were filmed on a soundstage. It is all so unrealistic and unbelievable and there is, quite simply, nothing scary about it. The original film worked its magic because everything looked so goshdarned real, whereas book of Shadows looks faker than Lindsay Lohan’s lips (which are also ten times more frightening than anything you’ll find here).
Berlinger completely loses track of what made the original such a success, which was in embracing its cheapness wholeheartedly and using it to great effect, whereas this mess squanders its big budget and achieves nothing whatsoever. The Paranormal Activity films stuck to the ‘found footage’ format for each instalment to great effect, but in trying something different, Berlinger manages to kill this franchise stone dead. The production values are shoddy, reminiscent of a made for TV movie or an episode of Buffy, and the editing is distressingly shuddersome. Before the film has even begun, during the opening credit sequence we are subjected to a series of subliminal flashes of violent acts being perpetrated, utilising gallons of ‘blood’ that look more like delicious, creamy tomato soup. Mmmmmm. These scenes are hopelessly jarring and actually work to remove any tension created by the opening faux news footage montage. Right away, these horrible little shots signal that this film is going to be incredibly different from its precursor, and certainly not in a good way. By the time we’ve been introduced to the sucky characters, the realisation must surely begin to set in that this is going to be a long haul. Perhaps if we keep drinking it will all be ok. Dream on.
Following the campfire booze-up, the group awake to find their camp destroyed, Stephen’s manuscript shredded, and all Jeffrey’s videotapes missing, with no-one having any recollection of what happened. The fact they were all drunk out of their minds is, of course, never mentioned. From here on in, in their efforts to piece together what happened, the picture rapidly descends into nonsensical, atrociously directed supernatural hokum. The team decamps from the woods to Jeff’s bewilderingly gigantic house/creepy warehouse to get to the bottom of things, where they start to see all manner of weird, unscary things, while arguing a lot. In this respect, Shadows is quite similar to its progenitor. Oh yeah, Tristen also has a miscarriage on the way. Quite mystifyingly, nobody seems that bothered. With these characters it’s really not that surprising. Ho hum.
Gulp it down, friend, you’re gonna need it.
Book of Shadows fails on so many levels (for one thing there is never, not once, any mention of a ‘book of shadows’), but truthfully, it falls at the first hurdle by populating its narrative with obnoxious characters you really couldn’t give two damns about. Psychic goth Kim is supposed to be ‘edgy’ and ‘mysterious,’ and to her credit, actress Director injects the camera with a lot of feisty, spiky charm, doing her best to make her as likeable as possible, but her dialogue is so piss-poor that she fights a losing battle. Kim’s sole purpose in this movie appears to be to nonchalantly point out important plot points that there is no earthly way she could have known about. She’s ‘psychic,’ you see? She knows Tristen is pregnant the moment they meet. She knows that Jeff’s tapes are buried in the same place they found the original Blair Witch tapes! How could she possibly have known this? Was it maybe because she put them there in the first place? No. That’s not even an option to be considered. It’s because she’s psychic! Weren’t you paying attention?
Floaty ‘wiccan’ (ie. Crap Witch) Erica is even more excruciating, spending the entire movie defending the concept of witchcraft, flashing her boobies, getting in the way, and generally reaching for levels of ‘kookiness,’ that would put Phoebe Buffay to shame. She’s like a cross between a reeeaalllyyy stoned hippy and a tedious World of Warcraft kid, ranting about spells, and try as she does to be like, totally sexy, there ain’t no way you wanna hang around with that kinda person.
Burn Notice’s Jeffrey Donovan is clearly capable of much better things, but spends the majority of this one in front of video monitor looking as confused as a fat kid with salad while bad stuff goes on around him, possibly wondering why his ‘insane asylum’ backstory isn’t in any way important to the plot.
Bar Kurt Loder’s thespian tour de force, every performance in this nightmare of a film is wretched, but the most compellingly awful pick of the bunch must be Larry Flaherty’s outrageously O.T.T. turn as the consistently exasperated Sherriff Cravens, who has discovered another tour group disembowelled in the woods and is desperate to pin the murders on Jeffrey and co. Even though he phones Jeffrey to tell him this, giving them ample time to get away. And they just stay put. Flaherty’s extraordinarily overblown performance as the grizzled, take-no-bullshit lawman is so awesomely exaggerated he wouldn’t seem out of place chasing pesky kids in a Scooby Doo cartoon. This dude is so bad he’s actually funny and offers welcome respite to all the absurd, convoluted, otherworldly goings-on. Sadly, he doesn’t stick around for long.