It makes all too much sense that ill-fated Artisan Films pumped out a sequel to their 1999 box-office success, The Blair Witch Project. Questions of whether certain meticulously-arranged rock piles should be disturbed was a non-issue, and any sense of story continuity was jettisoned in favor of a hackneyed, nonsensical plot. The cynical profit the Artisan execs were clearly expecting never came, and the franchise was killed in its infancy.
Insofar as filmmakers up to the task of following in Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s footsteps, Joe Berlinger – he of the excellent Paradise Lost documentaries – was an inspired choice. He had experience in detailing horrific, woods-based crimes (shrouded in a speculative cloud of Satanic intent), while also showing an exhaustive commitment to interviewing the key players in a real-life child-murder trial.
As far as the burgeoning found-footage subgenre was concerned, it was a match made in heaven.
But Berlinger (and co-writer Dick Beebe, of the House on Haunted Hill remake), in an apparent effort to expand from his documentary niche, instead delivered the type of generic, directionless horror flick that had stigmatized the genre prior to The Blair Witch Project‘s arrival.
Poorly “acted” by a cast of unlikable unknowns (though Erica Leerhsen did wind up in 2003’s as-abysmal remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), Book of Shadows never settles on a tone. Nor does it ever explain what its title has to do with anything. It alternates between stilted comedy, tasteless caricature of the “locals” from the original film (including a brain-damaged tour guide), gory close-ups of people being stabbed, and remedial notions of what comprises a Goth and a Wiccan (nude blood rituals in the woods, apparently!).
This is the type of film where characters will do something, and then contradict it – with no logic or purpose – in the following scene (and this happens many times). It’s not the Blair Witch; it’s just bad, bad writing. Remember Don’t Mess with My Sister? No? Well, it’s a lot like that.
This particular road to hell establishes its faded-zeitgeist flavor by scoring the opening credits to Marilyn Manson’s “Disposable Teens,” because why not? The original Blair Witch served as a transitional point, not only for a particular filmmaking era, but a style that, prior to, had been relegated to the likes of such anti-mainstream auteurs as Ruggero Deodato (Cannibal Holocaust) and Paolo Cavara and Gualtiero Jacopetti (Mondo Cane). It presented a “new” aesthetic to a majority of viewers, and that’s how it broke through.
The plot of Book of Shadows is mostly negligible, revolving around ill-defined characters who bicker endlessly over increasingly stupid shit; strange happenings in the brain-damaged guy’s “house” (really an abandoned factory in the woods); and that whole “we were tricked into thinking one thing while we were really doing something else!” twist (how smug of Oculus to rip them off!). The film shifts between the interrogation room of the local police station (overseen by one of the hammiest shit-kicker Sheriffs in movie history), and the events at the house, and it’s only in the last 15 minutes that Berlinger brings performance, set design, and lighting into something approaching a passably suspenseful effort. But by then, who gives a shit?
One interesting element recalls Brian O’Blivion’s philosophy on television (and, for all intents and purposes, consumer-grade recording equipment): is anything real outside our perception of reality? Those final 15 minutes actually pretend to care about that, but the rest of the film is so clunky, and so desperate to make any of its weak parts work, that it fails miserably. There was a moment early on where I thought this would be a deconstruction of commercialism and fan culture in the aftermath of the original’s success, but – like every other thread – it takes no interest in pursuing the angle to any meaningful end.
Needless to say, horror fans and mainstream critics alike sealed Book of Shadows‘ fate, and the Blair Witch went into hiding…until this year.
Jonny Numb’s IMDb Rating: 3 out of 10