Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000)

Though no one involved in the making of Book of Shadows is a household name, a lot of classy talent has been roped in to craft a follow-up to a film which derived its potency from an apparent unparented emergence out of nowhere. Original creators Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez are retained as executive producers (one of those credits that could mean anything), but director-writer Joe Berlinger comes from the very documentary tradition The Blair Witch Project so cunningly imitated, having won plaudits for Brother's Keeper and Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (which resonates throughout Book of Shadows) and made a fiction debut with an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street. To build on the thrown-together artefacts, improv dialogue and minimal soundtrack of the first film, the sequel calls in co-writer Dick Beebe (of the remake of House on Haunted Hill), art director Vince Peranio (who has worked with John Waters and Barry Levinson and does wonders with the witch's new lair, an abandoned broom factory), composer Carter Burwell (a Coen Brothers regular) and Marilyn Manson (who assembles a selection of goth-rock tracks). It may not have a blockbuster budget, but it's clearly affluent in an independent sort of way, using the money saved by hiring an unfamiliar (though not unknown - most of these people have real credits) cast to haul in behind-the-cameras pros.

The problem is that The Blair Witch Project was a one-off, and has in a short year already had an allegedly imitated precedent (The Last Broadcast), a flurry of spoofs (The Bogus Witch Project, The Watts Bitch Project), some disreputable footnotes (The Erotic Witch Project), blatant rip-offs (The St. Francisville Experiment) and the first of what one dreads will be numberless I-can-do-that shaky cam-corder killer-in-the-woods DTV quickies (Camp Blood). Artisan, the distributor who hit big with Blair Witch, and Haxan, the production company, put the sequel project out to tender and went with one of several suggested continuations of the franchise. It probably made the most sense to step away from the faux documentary framework of the first film, and so Book of Shadows is far more like a 'normal' picture. We see a lot of Blair Witch-style video footage apparently shot by the characters (or even by the unseen witch), but most of the movie unfolds in the standard third-person, edited, scored and rehearsed manner. Though there are no on-screen monsters, there are some gruesome special effects mutilations in flashes or close-ups, and the dialogue is mostly of that solidly competent TV movie-level that betokens a qualified screenwriter tapping away at a word processor to meet a tight deadline rather than real people in real situations spieling naturally. As an entry in the DTV Night of the Demons, Witchcraft or Amityville franchises, this would be perfectly acceptable, but as Blair Witch 2 it has no chance at all.

There are interesting ideas and footnotes: by hinging the characters' fates on 'impossible' videotape footage, showing radically different versions of incidents we thought we saw objectively (Kim just as an argument with the grocery clerk in the conventionally-shot scene we must read as 'the truth', but a security camera shows her stabbing the woman to death), the film subtly questions not only itself but The Blair Witch Project. After all, if the witch can manipulate video and film footage to lie, then what status can the footage that made up The Blair Witch Project have? The sloppy but amusing opening of Book of Shadows, with Burkittsville residents jeering at a flood of Blair Witch fans or trying to hawk them useless souvenirs, already blurs the film's status as a fiction - in the universe of Book of Shadows, is The Blair Witch Project a film by Heather Donohue or by Myrick and Sanchez? - as the Sheriff complains about the unethical use of the term 'documentary' and tourists act more like film fans that investigators of the paranormal. Given this confusion, even what seems like a plain lapse (the tapes contain footage of the tapes being buried) might be another manifestation of the witch, like a tree that comes and goes when no-one's looking and the witch-marks that sprout like poison ivy on the characters' bodies.

If the fiction of the Blair Witch is the confused heart of the film, which seems to imply that child-murderer Rustin Parr was actually visiting vengeance upon the equivalents of the local kids who tortured and murdered Elly Kedward, then Berlinger's more general concerns thread throughout the film. Like Paradise Lost, Book of Shadows is about the search for scapegoats, and each of the characters is set up, like the paranoid professor of Arlington Road, to take the blame: Kim, the goth girl, claims that in her home town she is treated like a mad killer because she wears black clothes and make-up, and some Burkittsville locals taunt her by calling her 'Morticia' or 'Elvira' and throwing rocks; Erica, a real witch, insists on arguing with the media misrepresentation of her beliefs, and shares the pain of Elly Kedward during her protracted execution; Jeff is a released mental patient and net-nerd; and Steve is consumed with research on a book entitled Blair Witch: Hysteria or History?. In post-Littleton / Oklahoma City, with bodies piled up and a supernatural frame in force, a news commentator claims 'sadly, as so often in this country, violent art has inspired real-life violence'. The moment comes too late, after too much ordinary or uninspired business, but again the Blair Witch franchise has asked its audience to think again about its definitions, of 'violent art' and of 'real life'.

First Published In: Sight and Sound December 2000 (UK)

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