So this week’s film where I ask the quintessential question of “Was it THAT Bad?” is Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. After the overwhelming success of The Blair Witch Project, Artisan Entertainment was falling all over themselves to make a sequel. Even though Book of Shadows went on to be a cult favorite, the critical and audience reception wasn’t too positive. Now that a new sequel has been released (which you can read my review of on my blog) and since it’s October and that means horror films and Halloween, I decided I would go back and watch this first sequel and find out if it was really that bad.
Essentially Blair Witch 2 is a fictional recreation of a fictional event that occurred after The Blair Witch Project took place. In this film’s reality (and a reality that is carried over to the newest film), The Blair Witch Project is a legit “found footage” film that shows some real-life documentary filmmakers disappearing in the woods of Burkittsville, Maryland. Like in our reality, the film is a huge success and a young entrepreneur with a shady past; Jeffrey Patterson (Jeffrey Donovan), opens up a tour where fans can visit the sites seen in the film. In his inaugural journey, he is joined by researchers Stephen (Stephen Barker Turner) and Tristen (Tristine Skylar), they hope to write a book on the phenomenon and discover if any of the myths are true, a gothic psychic named Kim (Kim Director), and a Wiccan named Erica (Erica Leerhsen) who is out to clear the name of witches everywhere. That night, they find they lose five hours of time and when they examine their footage from their cameras they are horrified to learn that not all is as it seems and that the evil that claimed the lives of the students in The Blair Witch Project might be after them as well.
So, what it THAT bad?
Short answer: Um…kinda.
There’s no argument that Book of Shadows has a load of problems. The fact it was a follow up to a very groundbreaking film already puts it at a distinct disadvantage and the fact that this sequel came out only a year later hurts it due to the reality that the excitement was still riding high and expectations were through the roof. Other elements that hurt this movie is the fact that a lot of the acting is kinda odd. It’s never really terrible but there are a lot of times where the reactions are questionable or feel unnatural. The film is also hampered by a lack of atmosphere and that it really looks cheap and like a Direct-to-Video feature. There’s also a lot of problems with the editing as the story will take awkward leaps to certain events in the plot. Sometimes, it even feels like the movie is coming in and out of commercial breaks like this feature was produced for a network. Finally, the story lacks a decent pace. The entire film never feels like it has a flow to its development and it just feels painfully off the mark during its entire running length.
All of these issues come together under the umbrella of the film’s biggest problem: It’s just not that scary. There’s a few attempts at jump scares but they’re never satisfying and the mystery of what happened to the group just isn’t engaging enough to create dramatic tension. Finally, with its lack of atmosphere that I previously mentioned, nothing that is seen occurring is really that haunting or creepy.
Now, while all this definitely makes Blair Witch 2 a pretty weak addition to the series’ very small franchise, I would be doing a disservice if I denied that this film didn’t hold a lot of potential. The core concept of the film—a tour group obsessed with a film that may or may not have been real go out to visit the filming locations and end up killing each other on the belief that supernatural powers were involved—has the potential to be something good and keeping along with the spirit of the series. Director Joe Berlinger had stated that his original vision of the film was a more ambiguous tale that would make the viewer question the reality of the events that occurred and it was the studio that decided they wanted a more horror film-esque approach and ending.
Ambiguity was something that made the first film so magical because you never actually see a tormented soul wreaking havoc on the three students so it could be argued that any number of things were happening to them that range from supernatural to one student losing his mind and killing the others. While this one has a semblance of questions over the exact nature of the events going on, it still feels like there was some supernatural forces at play and those forces were setting the group up against each other. Had the story been a little more aloof this whole film might have actually worked out better…and we would have had to just wait until the third movie to come out and completely obliterate the ambiguity of the mystery in the woods.
Additionally, even though there are a lot of points where the performances are bad they do seem to get better as the story progresses and the group falls deeper into the hole of madness. Also, the film actually has some moments where the make-up looks great. As the group becomes more paranoid of each other and over the mystery of what happened to them, most of them become sleep deprived. This is mostly evident in Jeffrey Donovan’s character and the make-up they used to make him look exhausted is really good. I know it’s a small thing to point out and it’s kinda odd in the grand scheme of a movie but it looks real and helps sell the insanity that they are going through and amplifies the performances.
Finally, the DVD and home release of this film had a special feature called “The Secret of Esrever” (Esrever is “reverse” backwards) and, when decoded, it gave clues that pointed to moments in the film that had ghostly images and words inserted. This would also lead to clues that would send the viewer to a website where you could see an extra scene of the film. While this isn’t enough to fully redeem the film, it is enough to give cause to watch the film again and it ended up creating something fun to uncover. I actually remember working to figure out the clues and finding the hidden images when it came out on DVD. I found it neat then and I still find it to be a cool bit of unconventional marketing now.
Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 was pretty much doomed from the get-go because there was no way it could live up to The Blair Witch Project. It earns points for not attempting to recapture the first film or just lazily try to repeat it by once again being a “found footage” feature and it gets more points for having the spirit of the first film in the form of ambiguity (albeit only slight) and by inserting small “found footage” elements as if to honor what came before. It has a whole load of issues from a storytelling and technical standpoint that made it, sequel or not, a very disappointing horror movie. Ultimately however, there was definitely potential to this film but it just wasn’t realized.