Mike is a freelance writer exploring obscure media, wyrd tales, and cultural oddities.
1999's The Blair Witch Project proved to be a landmark film for horror cinema that popularised the found footage genre. But, for better or worse (probably the former), the world of the Blair Witch hasn't quite ballooned into a franchise in the way other iconic horror films from that era have. Mostly because the conditions required for the original film's success just don't exist anymore. Audiences are too savvy to be fooled by the kind of early internet marketing campaign that bolstered the first installment's success.
That said, there have been some attempts to expand the lore suggested in the original story and cash in on its continued popularity. There's the fairly forgettable 2016 sequel, a handful of video games, some novels, and one or two comic book series. And as of 2022, another installment in the movie franchise is in the early stages of production.
One sequel that doesn't get talked about much is the one that came out just over a year after the original, Book of Shadows: The Blair Witch 2. Indeed, it seems like all other Blair media acts like it doesn't exist. Even the 2016 film didn't mention the movie or any of the events within it. It's as if the film is the franchise's dirty secret.
But how bad can it be? Especially considering we've got the talented documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger (Brother's Keeper, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills) on the director's chair, a seemingly perfect fit for this unique metaverse if there ever was one.
Is Book of Shadows a forgotten and misunderstood gem? Or is it the belligerent drunk of the Blair Witch family who only turns up once a year to ruin Halloween, and no one talks about otherwise? Let's take a look.
A Promising Start Quickly Dismantled
Book of Shadows starts with so much promise, contextualizing itself in the real world where The Blair Witch Project is a recent horror cinema phenomenon. We get footage of news reports and talk show hosts, including Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien, talking about the first film.
We then find ourselves in Burkittsville, Maryland, the location of the previous film, where tourists and obsessed fans have descended, much to the disgruntlement of the locals. These are real-life interviews with the black-clad diehard fans and the ticked-off locals. It all seems pretty auspicious. What better way to keep the spirit of The Blair Witch Project alive than a pseudo-documentary about the film? Perhaps one that takes a 'shades of grey' approach to the original's legitimacy?
But then everything changes.
Suddenly, we're in a psychiatric hospital for a montage that seems to have been pulled straight out of a 90s MTV music video (picture Green Day's "Basket Case"). We get cigarette smoking doctors administering drugs, a man wailing around in a straight jacket, and many irritating cut-shots. And, just to assure audiences what kind of film they're in for, we find ourselves following a Scooby-Doo styles van traveling down a highway as Marilyn Manson screams "Disposable Teens" over the opening credits. Yeah, it's that kind of film.
Then it's time to meet the bulk of our protagonists, A group so cliche and over the top that they're almost lovably cartoonish. We've got a married pair of researchers named Stephen (Stephen Barker Turner) and Tristan (Tristine Skyler), a Wiccan called Erica (Erica Leerhsen), and Jeffrey (Jeffrey Donovan), the psychiatric patient from the film's beginning who is now working as a tour guide. Oh, and there's also a psychic (yes, psychic) goth named Kim (Kim Director).
You may notice their names match the actors playing them, which is a cute nod to the original film. But, honestly, that's where the similarities end. Whereas the original movie gave us a group of relatively normal and believable college students, Book of Shadows features The Breakfast Club played by thirty-year-olds. That one of these characters has a superpower might be forgiven at a stretch, but it doesn't even play a significant role in the movie, only popping up when the writing gets too lazy to move the film forward otherwise.
A Whole Lot of Nothing
Our heroes decide to camp on the ruins of a place called Rustin Parr's house, which features in the original film. They place around a few cameras (just in case!), bicker with another tour group, and get smashed drunk and stoned. Stephen and Tristan's research documents are inexplicably raining down from the sky when they wake up. Then Tristan suffers a miscarriage, and everyone starts seeing bad creepy CGI girls and soon discovers they've been marked for death. What follows is somehow both predictable and nonsensical.
After around 5 mins at the hospital, the gang ends up at Jeff's house/abandoned factory, where they spend the rest of the movie trying to piece together what happened by viewing the footage. They see things they don't remember doing, hear strange noises around the house, experience weird dreams, and start accusing each other of being up to no good.
In truth, little of any real consequence happens until the film's conclusion, and therein lies Book of Shadows' most prominent issue. Despite the complete 180 in tone from the original Blair Witch, it fails to shake off that film's flaw, in that it's just really dull. Mildly spooky things happen, everyone sulks and argues, and then something else happens. They don't get killed off one-by-one by a vengeful witch. They don't get hunted by some giant monster in the woods. They don't do much of anything.
Of course, The Blair Witch Project gets away with being "boring" because it tricks the audience (or at least, it used to) into believing that what they are seeing is real. Unfortunately, Book of Shadows is neither subtle enough nor atmospheric enough to be scary on its own merits and not bold enough to commit to being a generic horror film entirely. By the end, you're practically praying for a cheap jump scare just to break the monotony.
What Went Wrong?
This should have been an easy home run. Well, it's hard to say precisely, but it certainly appears that there were some significant creative differences behind the scenes.
Production company Haxam and film studio Artisan were on a different page from the get-go, the latter wanting to cash in on the Blair Witch Project's success and the former wishing to bide their time. However, Artisan decided to proceed anyway and brought in Berlinger, which seemed like a stroke of genius. But unfortunately, they didn't like what Berlinger delivered and decided to re-shoot certain scenes and re-cut the film to create a more traditional horror flick.
Berlinger himself felt disheartened by the changes made to the film, even bringing the issue up in the home video's release's commentary, feeling that it took away from the film's ambiguous plot. Of course, we don't know if Berlinger's original cut was much better than the finished result. But, the fact that the studio pushed for Marilyn Manson (over Frank Sinatra's "Witchcraft") for the opening scene perhaps provides a bit of a giveaway of the kind of film they envisioned and how it differed from what Berlinger wanted.
For all of its faults, The Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 does at least have a kind of weird charm. Indeed, if you grew up during this period and were a fan of horror films, it might just provide you with a nostalgic kick. It might be the most late-90s to early-00s horror film ever created. Nu-metal and industrial soundtrack? Check. Meta themes? Absolutely. A Breakfast Club meets Scooby-Doo-styled gang of thirty-something "heroes" trying to act like angsty teenagers? Sure thing. It's even for the angry small town sheriff, dodgy facial hair, and houses decorated in tapestries.
The film is almost like watching an overly long early episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, but with less likable characters. Though to its credit, they're still more likable than everyone we meet in the 2016 film (which isn't saying much).
None of this is to say the film is any good, though. Instead, it's a massive missed opportunity, made worse because it occasionally hints at what it could have been. Perhaps The Blair Witch Project should have just been better off left as a standalone work. But, a social commentary on mass hysteria fuelled by pop culture seems like it should have been an interesting follow-up. But Book of Shadows completely fumbles on delivery. And the Blair Witch legend has never fully recovered its momentum since, no matter how much anyone tries to forget this movie.
© 2022 Mike Grindle