Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000)
Directed by Joe Berlinger
Cast: Jeffrey Donovan, Kim Director, Stephen Baker Turner, Erica Leehrsen, Tristen Skylar.
2000 90 minutes
Rated: (for violence, profanity, brief nudity, sexual situations, and gore).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 29, 2000.
1999's "The Blair Witch Project" was a landmark, groundbreaking motion picture--a $250,000 cinema verite-style pseudo-documentary that ended up becoming the must-see film of the summer and making over $140-million. Its financial and mostly critical success, however, did not win over some viewers, who passionately hated everything about its shaky-cam, "you-are-there" style of filmmaking. For every person who felt it was one of the most frightening movies they had ever seen, there was another who disliked it for the exact opposite reason, stating that it wasn't scary in the least. A horror film that became the biggest-grossing independent movie of all time, still, can only mean one thing, and that's a sequel.
With the directing reigns being handed over from Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick to, coincidentally, documentarian Joe Berlinger (making his fictional feature film debut), "Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2" is the type of hugely hyped sequel that is just asking for trouble. By taking a more mainstream approach to the Blair Witch legend, in the auspicious screenplay by Dick Bebee and Joe Berlinger, the movie is bound to disappoint fans who were expecting more of the same, while keeping those detractors of the original in the dark with another story that raises more questions than answers. Nevertheless, "Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2" is clever, entertaining, and thought-provoking, a purely original thriller that is able to stand on its own two feet.
A fictional account of what happened to five grad students following the release of the original "Blair Witch Project" in the summer of 1999, "BW2" follows a group of twentysomethings who agree to take part in the self-proclaimed Blair Witch Hunt, an Internet-based organization begun by Jeffrey (Jeffrey Donovan), in which he and four curiosity-seekers, including a couple (Stephen Baker Turner, Tristen Skyler) writing a book on the Blair Witch hysteria, a Wiccan (Erica Leehrsen), and a psychic goth girl (Kim Director), travel to the Black Hills of Burkittsville, MD to retrace the footsteps of Heather, Mike, and Josh. Following a night spent partying and drinking among the ruins of Rustin Parr's house (the place where the original climaxed), they awaken to discover that they have no recollection of the past five hours, with the only possible answers lying within the video camera that Jeffrey had been using, á la Heather Donahue.
Setting up shop at Jeffrey's apartment (in the form of an old, dilapidated factory located in the middle of the woods), the five of them plan to sift through the tapes, hoping to put the aforementioned fragmented night together, which left them all with mysterious marks on their body. As Tristen grows more and more unhinged following a miscarriage, Erica starts to fear for her life, and they all begin to have spooky hallucinations from beyond the grave, the questionable Blair Witch myth gradually proves itself to be all too real.
A one-of-a-kind masterpiece that ultimately saw itself overcome with hype, the novelty of "The Blair Witch Project" could never be duplicated, and luckily, director Berlinger (1996's brilliant "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills") realized this before filming a carbon copy. Equipped with a script, subtle special effects, a steadicam, and a more visceral approach, "Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2" succeeds in the fresh way in which it tells its story, which is not a direct sequel to its predecessor as much as a fictional, occasionally satirical study on the effects the first film had on audiences and the media.
Unlike the unflinchingly real, improvised performances of Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams, the cast populating "Book of Shadows" have an actual screenplay to work with and, thus, are not nearly as impressive. Granted, many of their acting abilities are questionable, and the characters played by Erica Leehrsen and Tristen Skylar are overly annoying, but they do respectable jobs for primarily newcomers. Easily the standout in what could be a star-making appearance, Kim Director (whose only previous credits include bit parts in many recent Spike Lee films, including 1999's "Summer of Sam" and 2000's "Bamboozled") is an alluring, charismatic presence in the role of a good-natured fan of "The Blair Witch Project" who finds herself under suspicions simply because of her goth chick persona.
While never truly scary, the picture does contain several disturbing moments, not the least being the way the film toys with the fine line between perception and reality, and the hallucinatory sights of dead children, previous victims of dead serial killer Rustin Parr. With an ominous music score by Carter Burwell and atmospheric cinematography by Nancy Schreiber, "Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2" is inferior to the incomparable series opener (as expected), but is much better than could possibly be expected. By concluding on a cliffhanging note that leaves much of what happened in the previous 85 minutes up to you to decide, the film is nothing short of intriguing, and as a horror-mystery opening on Halloween weekend, is the perfect way to spend the spooky holiday.
©2000 by Dustin Putman