Cameras don’t lie
Or DO they??? That’s the question addressed by this sequel to the surprise hit of 1999, the most successful independent feature ever made.
I consider Dan Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’ The Blair Witch Project to be a classic, a scary campfire tale given vivid life – not only on film, but as a cultural phenomenon. Others disagreed, some because it failed to live up to their preconceived notions of what a horror movie should be. Where was the gore? Where were the special effects? Where were the things jumping out of closets? Where were the naked chicks?
An overt overreaction to that kind of criticism, Book of Shadows has all that. It also has a lot of ideas. One of the things that made the original such a phenomenon is modern society’s acceptance of videotape as conclusive evidence. If you see it on TV in a documentary format, then it must be true. Thus, the actors in America’s Most Wanted‘s crime re-enactments are constantly reported to police as the real criminals they portray.
That’s the attitude challenged here, as another group of twentysomethings camp in the Black Hills forest of Maryland, recording their journey on video. Unfortunately, director Joe Berlinger (and co-writer Dick Beebe) have set their themes in a format that adheres so closely to that of typical current horror films that it approaches parody – not surprising, when you consider Beebe wrote the remake of House on Haunted Hill.
The film first examines the 1999 Blair Witch media frenzy, then announces that this film is a re-enactment of an event that followed in September – an apparent mass murder allegedly committed by a Witch fan.
The cast of relative unknowns shows that stardom adds nothing to the performances turned in by other horror film cast’s except cost. Jeffrey Donovan (Sleepers, TV’s Another World and The Beat) is “Jeff Patterson”, a Burkittsville local with mental problems, hated by his neighbors for his exploitation of the Blair Witch fever created by the hit movie. He’s just expanded his business, taking a tour group camping in the ruins of killer Rustin Parr’s house.
The group consists of a disaster movie cross section of Blair Witch fandom. Stephen Turner and Tristen Skylar (Cadillac Man) are working on a book about Blair Witch folklore. Erica Leerhsen is a gorgeous Wiccan out to contact the Witch. Kim Director (from Spike Lee movies – excuse me, “jointz”) is a goth horror fan who “thought the movie was cool”.
Hiking out to the Parr foundation, they set up camp and camera’s and get down to some serious partying, with booze and smoke flowing freely. They wake up the next morning after several hours of “lost time”. So? They can’t remember what happened and how all their stuff got trashed. Still not getting it – what’s so unusual here?
To those that experience the same thing every weekend, the scariness is explained when the group retreat’s to Jeff’s home studio (located in an abandoned broom factory!), and it turns out those hours are missing from the videotapes. Further spookifying matters, the local law, represented by grouchy Sheriff Cravens (Lanny Flaherty from Natural Born Killers) calls in to inform the group that a rival tour they’d encountered has been found massacred at Coffin Rock. Strange events continue through the night, and suspicions and paranoia take over, culminating in the deaths of two of them.
There’s far too much “spooky business” early on, telegraphing the film’s punches, so that revelations later in the film lose their power. In concept, this is supposed to be a crass Hollywood product made by Artisan to cash in on their “is it real?” documentary, and as such it succeeds. But the film could have served as better art and entertainment by reaching for something more. And hey, where’s the book of the title anyway? The website mentions “Book of Shadows” as the title of Jeff’s movie script, but no explanation appears in the film itself.
Another problem I had with the sequel is its failure to exploit the terror of the woods themselves, a major factor in the original.
Better continuation of the Blair Witch series have been created for cable TV: a recent Showtime mocumentary delved into suspicions surrounding the lone “survivor” of the Rustin Parr murders, and a Sci-Fi Channel special covering Book of Shadows and the trial following the film’s events (serving up a few spoilers in the process).