Ndsu spectrum: movie review
‘Book of Shadows’ deepens the Blair Witch mythology
By JOHN HANSEN
Nov. 3, 2000
When a film makes $140 million and is called “scary as hell” by Peter Travers, everyone has to clock in with their opinion, and they tend to be extreme. Either you loved “The Blair Witch Project” or you hated it. I fall into the “hated it” camp, mainly because it had a long buildup with no payoff, ending in the midst of its first great scene.
Yet I love the Blair Witch mythology and the fresh horror concept of watching video footage to discover someone’s fate. So when I learned that “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2” would feature an entirely new cast and crew–some of whom admit to disliking the first movie–I really got excited about the sequel.
Director Joe Berlinger promised that “Book of Shadows” would be “a sequel to the phenomenon,” and it certainly starts out that way.
The film opens with clips from last year’s “Blair Witch” media blitz–MTV News clips, Roger Ebert’s review, clips from local TV stations detailing how Burkittsville, Md. has been inundated with tourists. This little clip show elicited some much-deserved chuckles from both the people who loved the first film and those who hated it.
Then we move into the narrative thrust of the movie–Jeff Patterson (Jeff Donovan), the successful entrepreneur behind the Witch Store in Burkittsville, and a former mental patient (check out “Shadow of the Blair Witch” on the Sci-Fi Channel for his backstory) has found a new way to cash in: the Blair Witch Hunt, which takes tourists to all the mythology’s key sites in the woods.
His first group includes husband-and-wife Stephen Ryan Parker (Stephen Barker Turner) and Tristen Ryler (Tristen Skyler), who are researching their book “Blair Witch: History or Hysteria?”; Erica Geerson (Erica Leerhsen), a Wiccan who has a sexual vibe with nature; and Goth girl Kim Diamond (Kim Director), who just thought “The Blair Witch Project” was cool.
The first stop on the tour is the ruins of Rustin Parr’s house, where Heather’s tapes were found, and where–earlier in the mythology–several children were murdered, perhaps by the Blair Witch. Jeff notices an ancient tree in the middle of the foundation and says “This wasn’t here before.” The others laugh and say “Nice try.” But as an audience we know something mysterious is going on here, and it’s more than merely Jeff trying to make the tour creepy.
Berlinger–making his first foray into fiction after several acclaimed documentaries–imbues “Book of Shadows” with a creepy and mysterious vibe that gradually replaces the characters’ lightness and wisecracks as the film progresses. After a night of drinking and partying, the campers awake to find their campsite trashed (“We must’ve fallen asleep.” “Asleep? More like we blacked out!”). Stephen and Tristen’s research papers are falling from the sky like snow, their cameras are trashed, and their surveillance tapes are buried in the same spot as Heather’s tapes.
Jeff blames it on a rival tour group–the Blair Witch Walk–whom they’d run into the night before. But why would they leave the tapes? they wonder. Then Tristen–pregnant with a child Stephen wants but she doesn’t–has a freak miscarriage. After a detour to the hospital, the group sets up shop in an old broom factory where Jeff lives and stores his Witch Store goods (he bought the place for a buck), and they watch the tapes.
This is when the movie really starts to get fun. It also starts to get weird, as the characters begin to discover ritualistic markings on their bodies. But it’s a testament to Berlinger’s skill that he’s able to milk a sense of mystery out of a series of bizarre events that don’t make much logical sense.
Berlinger and co-writer Dick Beebe have crafted a great script that really pays off in the end with a revelation that will make you want to watch the film all over again; kind of like “The Sixth Sense.” The twist is original, and it fits with the overall theme of the Blair Witch saga.
This film’s cast of unknown actors is about 100 times better than the cast of the first film (who, admittedly, had a tougher task by improvising their scenes). Donovan and Leerhsen especially make an impression–the haggard tour guide’s cynicism towards his customers builds as his eyes get more bloodshot, but he doesn’t go over the top like so many horror actors; redhead Erica is simply magnetic, drawing the viewer’s eyes in all of her scenes. All of the characters have a depth to them that Josh, Mike and Heather could only dream of–you want to trust all of them, but you have to hold out a bit of suspicion because of what you’ve seen.
Stylistically, the sequel is as abundant as the first film was stark. Gory scenes of knives plunging into flesh backed by a Marilyn Manson-heavy soundtrack; the creepy setting of an old warehouse in the woods, complete with “barking dog” alarm and a drawbridge that goes over a moat; time-lapse photography showing the shadows of trees along the building’s side–this is all great stuff.
Thematically, “Book of Shadows” is reminiscent of “Scream 2,” but much more effective. Of course, in the “Blair Witch” saga, theme, plot, character, and style are simply the tools to scaring the daylights out of moviegoers. Perhaps the first movie achieved a higher level of tension as Mike and Heather ventured into the house; but that was only after an hour of boredom and the effect was quickly erased by the film’s abrupt ending. The sequel is certainly scary enough, and it earns extra points with its mysterious vibe.
“Book of Shadows” works on many more levels than the first film, and–even if visual evidence is still a bit scarce–it adds a fascinating new layer to our knowledge of the Blair Witch. Most importantly, though, “Book of Shadows” is simply a great ride.