Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2
History or Hysteria?
Chris Andrews digs into Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 to determine whether the derided sequel deserves a second chance…
It’s hard to imagine now, back in the far-off realms of 1999, that a film could arrive, seemingly out of nowhere, to steal the hearts of horror fans and take the entire world by storm.
The internet, then still in its infancy, didn’t feed us every tidbit of movie gossip, buzz, scandal or spoilers months in advance. Maybe an article here or there in the reader’s film magazine of choice. What a time to be alive!
I’d read an article that summer, it was a tiny paragraph story thrown to the side of the page about a horror film that had supposedly sent audiences fleeing in terror during screenings at the Cannes Film Festival. That was enough for me. But what was this Blair Witch Project?
A genuine phenomenon
In the months that followed, although we weren’t aware of it at the time, one of the most ingenious marketing campaigns (that has still not been beaten) was launched. A crude website popped up that seemed to be related to the film and had what looked like real news articles giving snippets of the legend and three filmmakers who had gone missing while making a documentary.
Then the masterstroke; an hour-long documentary, Curse Of The Blair Witch, appeared on TV featuring interviews with locals from the area, the family of the missing filmmakers and local authorities, as well as a few clips from the supposed ‘found footage.’ It may seem naïve now with found footage films such a horror genre staple and the rise of social media and photoshop leaving us to question everything, but people were genuinely curious, was this for real?
Fast forward a few months, the film became a huge smash and was a phenomenon, the likes of which no horror film has come close to since. The story was kept alive for as long as possible; the three lead actors went into hiding and did zero publicity to convince the public they were still missing.
The merchandise embellished the legend. Heather Donahue’s diary that was supposedly found with the film cans was available to purchase. Even the mixtape Joshua Leonard had made for the trio’s car-ride into the woods was marketed and sold as the official movie soundtrack. But it didn’t take much digging, even then, to discover it was all a work of fiction. A masterpiece in indie filmmaking and scary as hell, but it wasn’t real. Phew!
Enter Joe Berlinger
And that’s where it gets interesting. Fan-created message boards replaced the fake news stories on various websites created to promote The Blair Witch Project. People were still debating the reality of it all. Okay, some would admit that, yes, it was after all a movie with actors, but the legend was real, right? Some people went even further, still believing the film to be real. Did they genuinely believe that, or did they just enjoy playing along?
A sequel was inevitable. But what the hell do you do? Directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez had already gone on record to say they would not direct a sequel themselves purely because if it was a disaster, they didn’t want to be held responsible. Nonetheless, they would hang around as producers.
Enter Joe Berlinger, who was an inspired choice. Neither horror nor movie director, Berlinger made a name for himself with his 1996 documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders At Robin Hood Hills, still one of the best documentaries ever made. The story concerns the horrific murder of three young boys in West Memphis, and the three teenagers accused of the crime, seemingly because they listened to heavy metal music and wore black t-shirts.
It was a hard task, but Berlinger seemed like a reliable choice and a good indication that things were at least heading in the right direction. Still, the question loomed: how to go about a follow-up? What do the fans want? The obvious choice would be to shoot a straight sequel, use the same format and hope for the best (the route taken later by less era-defining found footage franchise Paranormal Activity). Another option was just to shoot it as a straight horror film. Well, Berlinger did neither.
“I’m only the director.”
In a bold move, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 opens with real news clips from across the globe covering the hysteria around the original film, acknowledging that it was indeed just a film before turning its attention to Burkittsville, where the supposed Witch resides. We’re introduced to some new characters, including the lead, Jeffrey Donovan, talking to the camera about his love for the legend. Elsewhere, real-life locals tell of how their lives have turned upside down with unwanted visitors descending upon the site of the film en masse. One local woman even shows off her business on the side, selling Burkittsville rocks to tourists.
Then things go a little awry. From this genuinely entertaining and amusing opening, we’re treated to a bizarre series of flashbacks. It’s Jeffrey Donovan again (he would later star in the FX spy series Burn Notice). Here he’s writhing around in a straightjacket, foaming at the mouth and having tubes shoved up his nostrils by a sinister cigarette smoking doctor. There’s crazy fish-eye lens camera work, sped up frames, and it all ends with him banging a table screaming. It gets weirder… The opening credits begin with Marilyn Manson’s Disposable Teens blasting out over a helicopter shot of the forest, intercut with blood-drenched dead body parts.
None of this was as Berlinger intended. In his painfully honest DVD audio commentary, he explains how Book of Shadows was supposed to be linear with no time-shifts. The director had wanted Frank Sinatra’s Witchcraft played over the opening credits but the change of soundtrack, along with bloody inserts, was forced upon him by the studio. “What do I know,” Berlinger sighs on the commentary “I’m only the director.”
We now meet the rest of our cast. Like its predecessor, the actors all use their first names. It appears Jeff is running a Blair Witch tour. His customers include Kim, the obligatory goth, Stephen and Tristine, a couple writing a book on the Blair Witch hysteria, and Erica, a real-life Wiccan. It’s shot like a standard film, and they head out into the woods armed with beers, weed and, of course, cameras.
It’s a fascinating idea. Berlinger’s original plan for Book of Shadows was to examine the dangers of false information (something that seems eerily prescient now). He believed the marketing for the original movie could be considered dangerous, and it was that danger he wanted to explore. The group sit at the supposed ruins of Rustin Parr’s home – the man who murdered seven children, and where Heather and Michael met their terrifying end. Stephen turns to Tristine and whispers, “Everyone is here because they’re obsessed.” It does beg the question, does it even matter if something is real? When the actors of the original came forward, it didn’t stop people flooding message boards with crazy theories. It had taken on a life of its own.
No surprise, things go wrong for our happy campers. After being disturbed by a rival tour group, they drink the night away, still filming everything, of course. In the morning they wake with one hell of a hangover, no real memory of the night before and their belongings trashed. One thing remains, though… yep, you guessed it, the tapes, which they find buried in a creepy old tree.
Returning to Jeff’s home, a remote warehouse full of Blair Witch memorabilia and editing equipment, they settle down to watch the tapes and discover precisely what happened the night before.
The studio was very twitchy at the lack of horror, forcing Berlinger to reshoot a bucket load of gags, not all of them successful. Aforementioned dead bodies aside, we’re also treated to the ghost children of Parr’s victims, a sort of zombie-like Parr, and what might be the worst fake owl ever seen on screen. The sad fact is, some of this could have worked. In a grim sub-plot, Tristine, who is pregnant with Stephen’s baby, suffers a miscarriage after the camping trip. As she lies on the hospital bed, she sees the image of the young girl who was, as legend has it, drowned by the Blair Witch. In his audio commentary for Book of Shadows, Berlinger explained his original idea was to have the girl slowly dissolve after every cut – instead we get a very dodgy reverse walk that’ll raise more laughs than screams.
Video doesn’t lie. Film does, though
The core of the film is fortunately strong enough to stand on its own. As the group watch the dreaded tapes, they don’t like what they see and start to lash out at each other with sex and violence, some of it real, some of it in their heads. The idea is a frightening one, can your desire to believe in something cause you to do something terrible? Or, even worse, can you fool yourself into thinking you’re not responsible for something awful, even when the evidence is right in your face? In another prescient moment, Jeff screams at one of the group, “Video doesn’t lie. Film does, though!” If only Berlinger could have waited and made this film for the Twitter generation.
Today, music, movies and especially video-games, are often blamed by the mass media for acts of violence, and it’s a subject many, even within these industries can’t quite agree on. It also raises the murky question of who’s responsible. If your film or book supposedly causes someone to commit a crime, should you feel guilt, or does the fault lie entirely with the perpetrator? It is revealed in Book of Shadows that Jeff has suffered from mental health issues in the past. If he did commit these crimes, is he solely to blame?
Keeping up appearances with its big sister, Book Of Shadows also comes complete with not one, but two tie-in documentaries, each exploring the Blair Witch myth. Shadow Of The Blair Witch digs into Jeff’s dubious past and the events of Book of Shadows, while Burkittsville 7 takes a closer look at the crimes of Rustin Parr. Both are surprisingly effective and add to the already excellent lore. If that wasn’t enough, there are even a few Easter Eggs in the movie itself, with the mysterious Secrets Of Esrever. It claims there are hidden messages within the film if you play certain scenes in reverse (esrever backwards). For those who can’t be bothered, the findings are readily available online, but it’s a neat if ultimately pointless little bonus.
Beneath the Burkittsville dirt
The film was a notorious bomb. Released just under a year after The Blair Witch Project, many accused Book of Shadows of nothing more than a cash grab, which is a shame because there are some interesting ideas at play. Acquiescing to demands for another sequel, 2016’s Blair Witch went back-to-basics. Unfortunately, even with the usually assured Adam Wingard behind the camera, it’s a bland, uninspired mess that just feels like churned out product.
People may mock, but I’m not sure that’s something that can be said about Book of Shadows. It has faults – a lot of them – but it does deserve some credit. Even in its slightly barmy and hammy approach, it tries to tackle a fascinating issue (kudos must be also be given for once again not showing the Witch, another mistake the 2016 re-hash fell into).
In some ways, what with the influx of sub-par found footage flicks since the original Blair Witch, Book of Shadows is almost refreshing. If you had to make a comparison to something recent, given its subject matter it almost plays like an episode of Charlie Brooker’s hit-and-miss anthology show, Black Mirror. It’s flawed and sometimes frustrating, but deep beneath the Burkittsville dirt, there’s an oddly compelling horror sequel that is utterly original and truly unique.
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