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The Devil’s Advocate #5: ‘Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2′ (2000)

There’s an old song by Crosby, Stills & Nash which sagely urges that “if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” With so many horror films in recent years failing to deliver the sort of thrills that made us genre fans in the first place (Consider the bulk of this year’s theatrical output, if you need proof!), the Schlockfinder General has long labored to heed the advice of those old hippies and try to love even the least lovable of contemporary scare screeners. Of course, some movies are just so awful that they’re destined to be shunned and ignored until they fade from existence. Another old song declares that “you’re nobody until somebody loves you,” and some celluloid stinkers wholly deserve to remain nobodies forever. But often, even the most seemingly indefensible clunker has merits which can be appreciated – and even savored – by an open-minded, fun-loving fright fan. For this reason, I give you THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE… today’s defendant in this court of public opinion? BOOK OF SHADOWS: BLAIR WITCH 2!

THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE #5: BOOK OF SHADOWS: BLAIR WITCH 2 (2000)

With the 10th anniversary of the release of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT last July and the runaway success of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY in October, this is the perfect time to look back at BOOK OF SHADOWS: BLAIR WITCH 2. In the wake of the incredible hype and box office windfall of Daniel Myrick’s and Eduardo Sanchez’s indie “experiment”, it was inevitable that the obligatory sequel would be both an artistic and financial letdown. How do you duplicate the success of a movie that is, frankly, more gimmick than narrative without simply repeating that gimmick? Moreover, how do you win over a large number of moviegoers who, after being lured in by an undeniably brilliant marketing campaign, found the first BLAIR WITCH to be somewhat underwhelming? The answer to both questions is you don’t, but the makers of BOOK OF SHADOWS deserve credit for giving it the old college try.

In many ways, the original BLAIR WITCH was basically a bloodless slasher film told through the eyes of the victims. A group of young people go camping in the woods and are stalked by some unseen evil, a malevolent presence that eventually picks them off one by one. Though the “killer” (and, indeed, his or her bloody handiwork) is never really revealed to the audience, the loose narrative and disturbing final reveal have far more in common with FRIDAY THE 13TH and MY BLOODY VALENTINE than THE EVIL DEAD or THE HAUNTING. BOOK OF SHADOWS, on the other hand, is an old-fashioned ghost story, a haunted house thriller in which the house just happens to be an abandoned warehouse in the woods near Burkitsville, MD, and the unseen antagonist is unquestionably supernatural in nature.

During a montage of clips of media figures and Burkitsville natives discussing the Blair Witch phenomenon and the film that sparked it, we meet goofy but amiable ex-mental patient Jeff (BURN NOTICE’s Jeffrey Donovan), who makes his living selling homemade souvenirs of the legendary witch. This would-be entrepreneur then leads a tour group (which includes a pregnant girl, her skeptical fiancé, a practicing Wiccan, and a sexy Goth girl) into the woods, setting up camp on the site of the home of infamous child murderer Rustin Parr. The tourists and their guide all black out for several hours, awakening in the morning to discover that their campsite has been destroyed, and the pregnant woman has suffered a miscarriage. After a trip to the hospital, they retreat to Jeff’s warehouse home to try and figure out what happened, only to find that the videotapes of the evening’s events reveal nothing. Their search for the truth soon becomes a nightmare of spectral visions, spiritual possession, and cold-blooded murder.

It’s fair to say that BOOK OF SHADOWS: BLAIR WITCH 2 is nothing special. Even at the time of its release, it added very few new wrinkles to the age-old haunted house genre, and its “scariest” scenes are relatively tame in comparison to the best such efforts produced since. But, despite its bad reputation, it does have a few notable virtues. Donovan has an edgy charm that’s always fun to watch. Starlets Kim Director and Erica Leerhsen (though hardly master thespians) are sure as hell easy on the eyes. The self-referential opening is a nice little wink at the audience. The disjointed nature of the story foreshadows the non-linear structure of later films like SAW and its sequels. What the plot lacks in originality or credibility, it makes up for in honesty – unlike the original BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, this movie is actually about witchcraft and other metaphysical horrors.

But the real saving grace of BOOK OF SHADOWS is the clever way in which the script turns the video camera novelty of the original on its ear. This time around, the malevolent forces haunting the woods near Burkitsville use the raw footage shot by the protagonists against them. After playing up the media frenzy created by Heather Donahue and friends in the opening, co-writers Joe Berlinger and Dick Beebe give the focus of that frenzy a chance to even the score. It’s almost as if the Blair Witch is angry about being exploited by snotty college students and conniving hucksters with digital cameras and has decided to fight fire with fire. Though this element isn’t really sharp enough to be considered social commentary or a cautionary message about the dangers of modern media, it’s enough of a twist on the primary conceit of the original BLAIR WITCH PROJECT to make fair-minded viewers appreciate the filmmakers’ effort. It would have been very easy to send another group of kids into the forest with a video camera and just show a little bit more in the sequel, but director Berlinger and company chose to shake the gimmick up a bit. For that, I have to applaud them.

If THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT isn’t as scary or innovative as its ad campaign promised, BOOK OF SHADOWS: BLAIR WITCH 2 is nowhere near as bad as its reputation indicates. True, it doesn’t offer any sights veteran horror fans haven’t seen executed better elsewhere. True, it cost way too much to make, and thus was not lucrative enough at the box office to turn BLAIR WITCH into the franchise it could have been. True, it shares its predecessor’s greatest weakness – an inherent lack of replay value. True, there’s nary a “Book of Shadows” to be found anywhere in the film. It is, though, a reasonably enjoyable little horror flick with a mildly intriguing gimmick, an agreeable amalgam of THE AMITYVILLE HORROR and THE LAST BROADCAST that benefits greatly from the pre-stardom performance of its charismatic lead actor. Though it has many of the earmarks of a direct-to-video cheapie, it’s still far more satisfying and engaging than most SyFy Channel originals or straight-to-DVD knockoffs. If you begrudgingly respect THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT for “creating” the first-person horror subgenre or altering mainstream Hollywood’s view of indie fright flicks, you’ll probably still want to pass on BOOK OF SHADOWS. But if you’re genuinely a fan of the mythos established in the original, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t complete the series by picking up this modestly entertaining sequel on DVD. Like the folks who produced it, you could certainly do a lot worse.

NEXT: Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, the Schlockfinder General serves up some calamari, Italian-style, with TENTACLES.

READ THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE – HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION (2002)
READ THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE – JASON X (2002)
READ THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE – FRIDAY THE 13TH: A NEW BEGINNING (1985)
READ THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE – THE SILENT SCREAM