"The Blair Witch Project" was the love-it-or-hate-it movie of 1999. To its detractors, it was an amateurish bore, the ultimate triumph of hype over substance. To its fans, it was a fascinating example of minimalist horror, the kind of film that trusted its viewers to use their imaginations instead of wallowing in cheap shocks and gore. In the end, the fans apparently outnumbered the naysayers although it cost less than $100,000 to make, "Blair Witch" has, to date, raked in more than $200 million.
So just more than a year later comes the inevitable sequel, "Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2," about another group of young people venturing into the Black Hills and having something awful happen to them. This time, the youngsters are led by Jeff (Jeffrey Donovan), a resident of Burkittsville, Md., which has been overrun by curiosity seekers since the release of the footage shot by the doomed students from the first movie. Like many in his community, Jeff has decided to capitalize on the phenomenon by starting a tour of the sites associated with the legend, and, with four eager customers (Kim Director, Erica Leerhsen, Tristen Skylar and Stephen Barker Turner), he heads for the woods. They make camp, set up several cameras, then drink themselves into a stupor. When they wake up the next morning, they find their papers and equipment destroyed, and learn that a rival tour group has been found brutally murdered nearby. They go to the abandoned factory Jeff lives in to try to figure out what happened, quickly dissolving into hysteria and paranoia as they realize that whatever was out there in the woods has followed them.
If this sounds scary, or even remotely coherent, don't be fooled. The film reportedly had serious production problems, requiring extensive reshoots and editing, and the result is a ridiculous mess without a single moment of suspense or terror. Director-co-writer Joe Berlinger is a renowned documentary filmmaker whose specialty is weird, disturbing events in small towns ("Brother's Keeper," "Paradise Lost"), so it's tempting to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he is yet another victim of idiot studio heads interfering in the creative process.
There are a couple of reasons to think otherwise, though. One is the clumsy attempt at a "message" about fiction versus reality and the reliability of recorded evidence, which pops up at various times throughout the film. It actually starts out well, with an amusingly self-referential montage of real news reports and could-be-real interviews with Burkittsville citizens about the impact of the first movie. Ironically, when this very issue becomes the central plot point, it loses its impact. Berlinger doesn't need to make a statement he needs to tell a story, a skill he apparently hasn't learned yet.
The other major problem is the nagging sense that Berlinger just wasn't interested in the material in the first place. The makers of the original "Blair Witch" created an incredibly elaborate mythology to go with their film, and it contained any number of creepy tidbits that could have been used to inspire a great sequel. Berlinger and his co-screenwriter, Dick Beebe, don't seem to have paid the slightest attention to any of this, however, aside from remembering the basic names and events. The result is a patchwork of references and images that never even connect to each other, let alone to any of the established backstory. Berlinger and Beebe don't bother fleshing out the characters either although there are little hints about mysterious pasts and the like, it's all so completely superficial, there's no particular reason to care.
Is there anything good about "Blair Witch 2?" The first 15 or 20 minutes really are entertaining. The actors are all perfectly competent and attractive. There are a couple of scenes that are almost frightening (almost). That's about it. Anyone who liked the original should stick to watching it on video and enjoying the mountains of tie-in merchandise. Those who weren't fans to begin with aren't likely to change their opinion of the franchise after seeing this horror show.