It would be difficult to overstate how momentous an event The Blair Witch Project was, and its legacy continues on to this day. You know the story: two young directors make a minimalist independent picture and, thanks to an impeccable marketing campaign, manage to convince much of the world their movie is real. Blair Witch helped usher in the found-footage craze, and while it may not terrify modern viewers the way it did audiences in 1999, it’s still remembered fondly as an important piece of horror history. What isn’t as commonly discussed is the sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, which was rushed into theaters one year later, earning the scorn of fans everywhere before being exiled to the DVD bargain bin. But putting aside the fact that this followup is certainly not as effective as the original, and keeping in mind its troubled production, Book of Shadows is not nearly as worthless as one might expect. Sixteen years removed from the hype, horror junkies may even find something to appreciate.
Director Joe Berlinger could have very easily repeated the formula with Book of Shadows in order to cash in. Have a few more kids go into the woods and get murdered while screaming and shaking the camera. Give audiences precisely what they ate up last time. Easy, right? Instead, he opted for something different, a movie that comments on its predecessor and manages to work the Blair Witch craze into the plot.
Book of Shadows opens with real footage of TV hosts like Conan O’Brien and Roger Ebert talking about the previous film. This story, we find out, takes place in our universe during the immediate aftermath of the original picture’s release. In the world of Book of Shadows, The Blair Witch Project was a fictional movie, and the characters themselves are fans of it, thus placing them on our level. How cool is that? Five protagonists take a tour of the woods where Blair Witch was shot, just as any cinema geek may want to visit the set of their favorite horror film. This ingenious premise would later be copied in similar sequels like Grave Encounters 2. Each of the characters in Book of Shadows represents a different reaction to The Blair Witch Project, from those interested in analyzing its legitimacy to Wiccans offended by their portrayal on screen to people who just want to capitalize on the whole ordeal (i.e. the studio executives who funded Book of Shadows). Berlinger pokes fun at everyone involved in this madness, including himself for profiting off of it.
That night, the group drinks heavily and completely blacks out, waking up to discover their documents shredded and their cameras destroyed. The tapes are perfectly intact, though, and so they soon begin combing through the footage to figure out what happened the previous night. It’s like a much more sinister version of The Hangover. It’s also reminiscent of the way hardcore Blair Witch fans painstakingly analyzed every single frame for clues; the process of viewing The Blair Witch Project is the plot of its sequel.
The first obvious discrepancy between the two installments is that Book of Shadows is not found footage. Mainly, that decision was made because it would be impossible for another fake documentary to have the same impact, and obviously lying about the movie’s authenticity couldn’t be pulled off twice. How admirable is it that for once we have a sequel that goes out of its way to not tread the same ground as the original? Another reason for this, though, was that Joe Berlinger genuinely disliked the way directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez duped America into believing The Blair Witch Project was real. Book of Shadows, then, ends up becoming a repudiation of its predecessor and a reflection on the effect of violence in the media. The five leads are all horror fans, and throughout the film, it’s unclear if what they’re seeing is really happening or if it’s some messed up fantasy. This is precisely the uncertainty many experienced while seeing The Blair Witch Project in 1999, and that parallel is quite intentional.
To hammer in this point, Berlinger peppers Book of Shadows with horror references: Erica swinging around the tree is a clear homage to Evil Dead II, and the barking dogs call The Omen to mind. On the DVD commentary, Berlinger explains that he included these in-jokes not simply to be cute. Rather, because his characters are fans of the genre, he figured their delusions would be full of the messed up imagery they had seen at the cinema. Their life imitates art.
Taking this concept to its logical conclusion, Book of Shadows does not contain anything that is clearly supernatural. It’s instead about a group of characters going collectively insane, with their fantasies being the product of a media landscape that so often mixes fiction and reality. Whether these people literally buy into The Blair Witch Project, they have all been fed the idea that there is an evil lurking in the woods and a witch ready to possess them, not simply by storytellers attempting to entertain, but by news anchors who exaggerate any minute possibility that folktales are true. “Is The Blair Witch Project real,” the nightly newscaster may posit at the beginning of his broadcast. Obviously not; in what possible universe would a movie studio be releasing footage of three civilians’ deaths? It makes no sense, but such a clear-cut answer isn’t sexy, and it doesn’t get viewers to turn up the volume on the TV, so instead we get, “The Blair Witch…just a movie, or something more?”
These characters who are already not completely mentally stable – Jeff is established as having stayed in a psychiatric institution prior to The Blair Witch Project even being released – begin acting out the very violence they have been supplied by film and television during virtually all hours of the day. No, R-rated fictional stories are not inherently irresponsible, nor are they even completely to blame for the events of Book of Shadows. Rather, Berlinger argues that the issue is when reality is not clearly differentiated from fantasy. This trend, in combination with the general public’s thirst for blood, is precisely what drove audiences to the theater in 1999. The monster of Book of Shadows isn’t the Blair Witch. It’s The Blair Witch Project.
Don’t believe that the director intended for the murders to simply be the result of humans gone mad as opposed to something supernatural? Check out this quote of Joe Berlinger’s from the DVD commentary:
“What I’ve learned in my documentary making is that what we really have to fear is what people do to each other, and to blame it on some supernatural element is somewhat unrealistic.”
Continuing the theme of fiction versus reality, the movie makes clear that not everything we see necessarily occurred that way. In the first act, Jeff notes that “Video never lies. Film does, though.” Book of Shadows itself constantly lies to its audience, while the video within the film tells the truth. Everyone sees a giant tree where the Rustin Parr house was, but on tape, there’s no tree. Erica swears she blacked out along with her friends, but the video reveals that she was the one dancing naked around the tree.
We can interpret the characters’ perspective as being warped by the Blair Witch, or we can see it as being inherently warped by the very fact that they are inside a horror movie. In other words, the exaggerated world they experience represents horror storytelling, and what’s displayed on the tape represents the real world. The disconnect between the two is exactly Berlinger’s point, and it’s his way of reflecting a similar disconnect that occurs in society.
From a storytelling perspective, by making clear that the video is objective but the movie itself is not, Berlinger gives us an innovative means by which to understand an otherwise confusing plot. The most memorable twist relies on this gimmick. Stephen kills his wife, Tristen, after she appears to be under the influence of the Blair Witch, yet the tape shown in the police precinct tells a different story. What really happened is that Tristan was acting completely normally while Stephen was the one going mad. She begs Stephen to get away from her and lets out one final plea before being murdered by her own husband. As the tape ends, Stephen breaks down and is unable to accept that he apparently killed his wife under the false belief that she was a witch; he was caught up in the hype created by The Blair Witch Project.
All in all, Book of Shadows is an excellent descent into madness film, though in a completely different way than original. While that movie saw its characters going crazy as they realize they’re lost in the woods, this one takes place primarily indoors and forces everyone to grow more paranoid and start doubting each other. The last half plays out like a classic bottle movie. They distrust their own perception of things, too, and that leads to some creepy fantasy sequences, such as a few involving a little girl walking backwards while looking straight ahead. It’s a cheesy effect, but it works like a charm because of how otherworldly it feels.
Sadly, none of this greatness is recognized among the general public because of the film’s many, many issues, virtually all of which can be blamed on a textbook case of studio meddling. Joe Berlinger wanted to make a psychological thriller that begins with a light tone but slowly becomes horrifying; we would get to know these characters, enjoy spending time with them, and then in the final act, the madness unfolds. No murders would occur until the deaths of Erica and Tristen.
Sadly, Artisan Entertainment was unhappy with this approach. They wanted a more traditional horror sequel full of gore, so they called for many drastic changes to be made mere weeks before the film was to open. For instance, in Berlinger’s original cut, there are no cutaways to campers being murdered. Artisan threw this in to give audiences more blood and guts, but that takes away from the slow build. We don’t have a chance to develop a sense of dread when we’re witnessing grisly murders right from the start, and the footage being spliced in so frantically makes things more confusing than scary. We don’t think, “Wow, that’s horrifying.” We think, “What the hell am I watching right now?”
The flashforwards were also studio mandates, and this addition was nothing short of baffling. What exactly is the point of giving away the ending mere minutes into the film? Between the grisly cutaways and the shots of the gang in custody, it’s obvious that these characters committed murder while blacked out and the whole film is leading up to their arrest. Telling us that up front adds literally nothing, and it only destroys any possible suspense.
These two last-minute changes are nearly enough to ruin the entire movie. What should have been an interesting suspense picture that built to a massive twist becomes a jumbled mess where the ending is spelled out almost immediately. Couple that with the fact that the movie is such a drastic departure from its predecessor, and the fact that the performances are not exactly first rate, and the widespread contempt makes sense.
But even if Joe Berlinger did not quite accomplish what he set out to do, there is such a fascinating idea at the core of Book of Shadows. To make an interesting sequel, a director should feel that the previous film is lacking in some way. After all, if they don’t believe there was any room for improvement, then why are they bothering with another one? In Book of Shadows, Berlinger took his hatred of the first movie’s dishonesty and made an entire film out of it, commenting on the danger of blurring the line between fiction and reality. Had Artisan stayed out of the edit bay and let the man do his job, perhaps Book of Shadows could have been something truly special.