Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows
review by David Luty, 3 November 2000

It's difficult to know where to begin in describing the wasted mess that is Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows, so let's start with the title. Nothing in the movie is referred to as the "book of shadows," and no book or shadow plays any role in the story. The phrase does serve to bring to mind that which made the first film so effective, and this second one so drearily dull.

Like it or hate it, The Blair Witch Project functioned more as a book than most movies in the way it stripped itself down to its bare story essence - no recognizable actors, no music, no polished cinematography - and simply recorded a happening that left much to the imagination of the audience. This was taken to an extreme that miffed many members of that audience, for this was a horror movie that never showed you the source of the horror. Those same viewers can subject themselves to the other extreme with its sequel, a movie which shows you everything, and tells you nothing.

Show-don't-tell is the mantra behind most good movie storytelling, but only when that which is shown serves to tell you something. Images without meaning are nothing more than that. Blair Witch 2 is riddled with the horrific hallucinations and visions of its characters, and rarely shows any interest in distinguishing between that which is imagined and that which is real, and even more rarely attempts to connect them to any larger storytelling purpose. Five twentysomethings, in the same age group as the trio that first ventured into the Maryland woods looking to debunk or reinforce the myth of the Blair Witch, retrace the steps of that first group for pretty much the same reasons. They go crazy quickly, as unexplainable events occur around them, and pretty soon they are being questioned, in intermittent flash-forwards, in a murder case.

If Blair Witch 2 told its story well, if it seemed to actually have an idea of what it wanted to do and then did it, we would simply be talking about a question of taste regarding the two diametrically opposed movies. One deals exclusively in character, detailing the gradual loss of sanity in the face of complete disorientation and fright, the other deals exclusively in viscera, slamming you with gory images, flinch cuts, and wild emoting from the virtual start.

But this sequel doesn't even succeed as a shock-fest. Co-writer/director Joe Berlinger is at once a strange and fitting man for the job. This is his first work of feature-length fiction, after working on two very well received social justice documentaries along with his partner Bruce Sinofsky. Brother's Keeper and Paradise Lost each explored a case of individuals living outside of the societal norm, whether they were uncivilized, possibly incestuous farmer siblings or metal-head, Satan-worshipping teens, being wrongfully accused of criminal behavior based almost solely on that appearance. Blair Witch deals with a selection of just such characters living outside of social conformity - a purveyor of stolen electronics and ex-mental institution resident, a practicing female witch with an interest only in the whiter side of her magic, and a young woman with psychic powers who chooses to dress like Morticia Addams. Along for the ride are the most whitebread, clean-cut of the bunch, a young romantic couple researching the aftermath of the Blair Witch phenomenon for their grad-school thesis.

Berlinger could have been a canny choice to blur the lines blurred so effectively by the original, between the fiction form and the documentary form, and in the beginning, Berlinger tries to get back into the story through those same murky lines, staging interviews with the Burkittsville townspeople regarding the phenomenon not of the Blair Witch, but of the Blair Witch movie. But that's abandoned as soon as it's begun, as we're introduced to the latest set of intrepid forest explorers and sent forward into what looks and feels much more like a conventional movie. And it all goes south from there. Berlinger turns to a sloppy filmmaking style that's noisy in every way, and a narrative that lurches all over the place in its attempt to connect the insanity of its characters, or the insanity caused by some higher evil power, to what turns out to be nothing more than a simple-minded murder mystery. The resolution to that mystery either fits right into Berlinger's storytelling interests, or it exists in direct opposition to them. Either one could be the case in this wishy-washy, ambiguous debacle, and neither one is any more meaningful than the other.

Directed by:
Joe Berlinger

Kim Director Jeffrey Donovan Erica Leerhsen Tristine Skyler Stephen Barker Turner

Written by:
Joe Berlinger
Dick Beebe




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