If The Blair Witch Project was a phenomenon then its sequel can only be described as a mystery. I, along with everyone else, never bothered seeing Book of Shadows when it came out, but I figured maybe a fresh pair of eyes after years of found footage horror would be a little kinder to this film.
Blair Witch 2 opens with news clips discussing the first film, pundits giving their opinions, locals to burkittsville (where the first film was set) complaining about the unwelcome attention. This is all quite meta and clever, and the really smart thing do now would be to carry on with these newsreels and interviews, maybe add in some new found footage and expand the plot and the Blair Witch world from there. Unfortunately, the filmmakers do not do the smart thing. Instead it switches to a standard movie narrative with professional camera work, good sound, proper actors, that sort of thing.
Look, I know I tell you I am stick to the back teeth of found footage movies, and god knows I am, but this was made in 2000. Blair Witch was one of the first films to be made in this way, certainly the one first one to capture the public’s imagination in such a huge fashion. Now I do realise that the makers of the sequel must have been fearful of just repeating themselves, but they could have at least tried to follow on in the same style. Instead we are lumbered with a post Scream style product, all self referential and cocky know it all cool types. It’s not helped by the overbearing and desperate to be hip music soundtrack which just sucks the life out of any potential horrors up on the screen.
What we have is then a group of Blair Witch fans who are lead up to the woods, where the original tapes were found, by a local tour guide with a serious goatee. The gang here are stock characters of an uptight sceptic and his pregnant girlfriend, a supposed witch and a goth girl who may have second sight. None of them are interesting. When they arrive they find another tour group trying to stay at their base so scare them off and proceed to get pissed and stoned around the campfire until they blank out and can’t remember what happened after that. My usual Friday nights in other words. The rest of the film has them shacked up in a very pretty old factory trying to work out what happened.
If the story was played out in a straightforward fashion it could maybe, at a push, just about be okay, unfortunately it isn’t. For one thing, after the opening newsreels, we are treated to a flashback, then a flash forward to the survivors being interviewed by the cops, then there is the main story, which has more flashbacks, flash forwards and possibly even flash sideways, it’s hard to tell. There is even a flashback within a flashback at one point because that was seen by a good idea by some madman at the time. I know that this sequel was bashed out in a year, and there was obviously too many people coming up with too many ideas and not one united voice but really, this is a big old mess. Not so much of a mess that you can’t understand what is happening, there’s not enough story here to confuse anyone, but the cacophony of scenes climbing over the each other like a spider on speed just leaves a big and ugly pile of story points trying to be heard.
The editing structure isn’t the only problem with Book of Shadows, the dialogue doesn’t seem to be written by anyone who has ever heard a human talk out loud before. For example “this is what the wickam religion needs – more capitalism based on lies.” Who on earth talks like that? It’s relentless throughout the film, talk of rational thought verses mythology perception like we all do down the pub. I understand that some of these characters might be students but they all talk like they’ve torn their lines from a humanities undergraduate essay, and a bad one at that. I wonder if they were aware of how nonsensical they are. One character shouts, there’s a lot of shouting, “what the fuck are you talking about?!” And “this makes no sense!” Right behind you old buddy.
We have bad dialogue and all these flashbacks but also dreams and visions to make things even more incoherent. At one point the sceptic guy imagines his stomach is torn open. Horrible sure, but then he realises it was just his imagination or whatever, they don’t explain bother explaining this. Later on sceptic guy is on screen and we suddenly cut to the stomach tearing shot again, then back to him and he doesn’t react to it and it’s not there in the wide. Almost as if they inserted the gore shot to liven things up for no reason at all. It certainly doesn’t seem to relate to what else is happening on screen. Other visions are a bit more effective. The tour guide suddenly sees himself being electrocuted on an electric chair. As we have the framing device of him being accused of murder later on this shot is quite chilling. It only last for two seconds.
I don’t know what the plan was with the whole interrogation stuff but it doesn’t work. It undermines the main story as you are constantly being dragged out of the main narrative. Also you see who survives this ordeal so a lot of tension there evaporates. Also it is poorly acted with everyone shouting at each other or bursting into tears. I think, perhaps, they were trying to go for a bit of a a The Usual Suspects vibe. There’s certainly some twists at the end but really not very interesting or revealing ones. When we finally find out what happened at the camp during their collective blackout it’s meant to be shocking and horrifying but, up to a point when they took it too far, it actually looks like a good fun time. People always have to take things too far.
Really, the mind boggles. I can only assume that the producers were in such a rush to get a sequel before the cameras and out into the cinemas that they didn’t have time to take stock of what worked in The Blair Witch Project in the first place. Certainly what was most original about the first film, the found footage, and its signature calling card, is mostly left unfound. There is the germ of a good idea here but it is lost in the rush tell us lots of other random incidents which mean very little. It’s funny to think that movies such as Saw and, even more so, Paranormal Activity have been able to make long, successful franchises out of much weaker ideas than Blair Witch but this one stumbled and died on only its second outing. Maybe it was never more than a one off phenomenon, and maybe it should have been left as just that.