Warning: Both the film review and coverage of the extras contain major spoilers.
The success of The Blair Witch Project has turned the town of Burkittsville into a miniature tourist trap. People from all walks of life make the pilgrimage to see the town and woods in which Heather, Josh and Mike disappeared. Jeffrey (Jeffrey Donovan) has hit on a fantastic idea to cash in on the phenomenon: running a tour group and visiting the same haunts popularized in the movie. One particular tour finds him acting as chaperone to five disparate individuals, all of whom have been touched in some way by the film: Stephen (Stephen Ryan Parker) and his pregnant wife Tristen (Tristine Skyler) are writing a book on the mass hysteria around the film's mythology; Erica (Erica Leerhsen) is a Wicca practicer who wants to get to know more about the legendary witch; Kim (Kim Director) is a goth who has bought into the more commercial aspect of the phenomenon. A night under the stars in the ruins of the Rustin Parr house takes a nasty turn when they wake up to find their campsite trashed. More disturbing still, Tristen has suffered a miscarriage and strange marking adorn the troupe's bodies. After a quick trip to the nearest hospital, the goons convene at Jeffrey's woodland retreat, where they can study their camcorder tapes (they happened to have cameras filming the site all night) to find out exactly what happened. However, their nightmare is just beginning and, as they soon discover, the camera is not necessarily trustworthy...
Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows is either a shambling wreck of a film or else a misunderstood gem. More often than not, I find that my opinions are wildly out of step with what would best be dubbed "the mainstream" (that mythological great unwashed mass that thinks as one and, most likely, doesn't actually exist), so it should come as no surprise that, while the vast majority of viewers and critics alike derided this film, I actually think it's quite good. It's ultimately an extremely flawed piece of work, admittedly, but even so my opinion is that writer/director Joe Berlinger has been downright crafty in sneaking in a pertinent commentary on the very phenomenon upon which the film is based.
The success of the original Blair Witch Project was in my opinion due almost entirely to its marketing rather than the film itself. For those who have been living under a rock for the last decade, the central concept of The Blair Witch Project was to sell a film purporting to be documentary footage of the final days of a group of filmmakers who inadvertently stumbled upon an ancient evil and met their demise. A bit like Snuff, if you like, only somewhat more effective in its execution. Of course, the whole thing was nothing more than a hoax (although due to the tricks employed by the filmmakers to ellicit the appropriate reactions from their cast, some might argue that there is a hint of reality in the proceedings), but the highly effective advertising campaign, which harnessed the strengths of the Internet like no other film before it, did succeed in convincing many people that what they were seeing was real. By the time the film made it to the UK, the lid had been well and truly blown off the scam, meaning that it was never quite as effective over here as it was in the States, but nonetheless The Blair Witch Project remains something of a cult phenomenon and one that has spawned a number of imitators, the vast majority of them noticeably inferior in their execution.
Because the fact that the filmmakers succeeded in duping their audience was the reason for its success, the notion of making a sequel must have seemed utterly stupid. How could it every enjoy the success of its predecessor, now that everyone knew the whole thing to be a scam? The man hired to helm the project, Joe Berlinger, whose previous credits were largely in the documentary field, must have known that he had essentially been attached to a doomed project that might make a few bucks but would never be able to repeat the slam-dunk of the original, so instead he took an interesting route: admit that the first film was nothing more than a scam and use this very fact as the basis for his sequel. If the likes of Scream, a horror film that poked fun at the fact that it was a horror film, could be described as post-modern, then Book of Shadows (the title Berlinger wanted to use for the film, before the studio unceremoniously tacked "Blair Witch 2" on to it) is probably one of the first examples of a post-post-modern horror film: one that takes an even further step back and comments not on the clichés of the genre but the relationship of the audience itself to the images they are seeing.
Book of Shadows is essentially the polar opposite of its predecessor: rather than a horror movie purporting to be a documentary, it is a documentary purporting to be a horror movie. What makes it swork is essentially that, unlike The Blair Witch Project, its strengths lie in the film itself rather than the marketing. There is no external gimmick here, no trick that prevents it from working a second time round: the film works in its own right, serving a dual purpose as both an effective chiller and a commentary on the camera's ability to lie. Berlinger recalls the Blair Witch Project audiences that were suckered into believing they were watching authentic footages and applies it to his film's hapless protagonists. Kim, Jeffrey, Erica, Tristen and Stephen are all people who were affected by the original film in some way, some suckered by its claims of authenticity, others claiming to be above it all and to know better, and yet they (and we) are duped once again by the camera. In Book of Shadows, what we are shown is not what actually happened but either what the characters think happened, or what they want other people to think happened. It's a wonderful idea and Berlinger pulls it off well.
The only problem is that it's a trick. I previously said that this film didn't rely on external tricks to make it work, and this is true: the trick is part of the movie itself. Unlike a good thriller, there's no grand reveal to make you go "Ah! Now I see how it happened!" There's no way an audience, seeing the film for the first time, can work the twist out for themselves. It comes at the end as almost a slap in the face - it's like the magician who, having completed his routine, reveals that the rabbit was in the hat the whole time - and you can't help but feel a bit cheated. As such, it actually works better in hindsight, and on repeat viewings becomes more fun to watch.
The problems, therefore, lie mainly in the execution rather than the concept itself. All things considered, it is by no means a badly-made film, and it certainly makes good use of its relatively meagre $10 million budget, but certain moments do feel a bit on the amateur side, and things are not helped by the performances of the cast. To be fair, the acting could have been worse, and some of the cast members fare significant better than the rest - Jeffrey Donovan and Erica Leerhsen both turn in effective performances that capture their characters' archetypes pretty well - but even so, a number of scenes feel more like rehearsals performed by actors unfamiliar with the script than the real thing. One could argue that this adds an air of cinéma vérité to the film, but I doubt that this was Berlinger's intention. (In his commentary on the DVD, he states that conscious attempts by filmmakers to evoke realism generally annoy him because a movie director's idea of reality usually ends up looking like a bad parody of a documentary.) It helps, in a way, that most of the performers were, at least at the time, relative unknowns - Erica Leerhsen has since gone on to enjoy some measure of success in mainstream productions such as the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, but at the time of Book of Shadows' release, she was a fresh face, having appeared only in a short entitled Junior Creative. The fact that the characters share more or less the same names as their respective actors - for example, Erica Leerhsen becomes Erica Geerson - serves as an odd callback to the first film, but one that is not particularly effective or noteworthy.
The film has few real scares, but those that are present are handled quite effectively. An early scene featuring Jeffrey's experiences in a psychiatric hospital are disorientating and creepy (incidentally, these constitute some of the few moments in the film that actually feel like a documentary), and a later scene in which some of the characters open a cupboard door to find a naked Erica, standing upright but seemingly dead, is unnerving. The bulk of the tension, however, simmers below the surface and results in a film where the ideas behind it are more unsettling than the execution itself. The woods themselves are a foreboding place, and although I am not really a fan of the original film, I can't deny that its memory plays a major part in keeping the undercurrent of tension running throughout this sequel. The central notion of not being able to trust your own eyes is also an extremely powerful one. The film's soundtrack fares less well, crammed full as it is with all manner of abrasive songs by the likes of Rob Zombie and Marilyn Manson, which detract from the otherwise well-maintained atmosphere. To be fair to the director, Berlinger has stated that this was not his decision, and that the studio made a number of modifications to the film, including the soundtrack, after he delivered his preferred cut, but in practice this doesn't really change anything: it was a bad move, regardless of whose decision it was.
Book of Shadows is a film that I think is not only severely underrated but also significantly superior to the original Blair Witch Project, not only because it can be appreciated based on its own strengths rather than those of its advertising campaign, but because it is a vastly more interesting piece in its own right with a significantly more worthwhile point to make. If you hated the film the first time you saw it, I would urge you to give it another shot. It's far from perfect, but it's one that I think is deserving of a second chance.
The film is presented anamorphically in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 (not 1.85:1 as the packaging complains, but who's counting the individual lines?), but Momentum have sadly delivered an NTSC-to-PAL standards converted transfer. The rationale behind this, at least, makes sense: a significant amount of the film features video material (for example the news reports at the start, and the handheld material shot by the characters themselves). That said, there is far more film-sourced footage than video material, and if I had been mastering this DVD I would simply have deinterlaced the video sequences rather than allowing the quality of the rest of the transfer to suffer. There is some fairly prominent ghosting, and the level of detail is not very good at all. Edge enhancement is also quite pronounced throughout. Additionally, the black levels are often quite murky, although I suspect this was an intentional stylistic touch. All in all, it's watchable, but only just.
The audio is better, if unremarkable. Presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, it has a decent dynamic range and sounds pretty solid overall. As so often tends to be the case, the various heavy metal songs are mixed too loud, making them very distracting and resulting in frequent volume-fiddling. A 2.0 mix is also included for those limited to stereo setups. English subtitles are provided for the film, but not for the extras.
The first disc houses an audio commentary with Joe Berlinger. The writer/director is impressively candid in his approach, admitting many of the film's failings upfront, and taking the opportunity to lay into Artisan for making so many changes to the film - he clearly feels that his intentions were compromised, and it's a shame that a director's cut has not shown up, since while I doubt that the removal of the studio-mandated alterations would transform the film into something that it is not, the disposal of the licensed songs on the soundtrack, as well as excising the various pasted-in gore shots and returning the various scenes to their original order (the scenes in the police station, in the finished version scattered throughout the film, were originally all meant to appear at the end, thus making the conclusion more of a surprise), would undoubtedly have improved the overall tone.
A bizarre feature called The Secret of Esrever is also included on Disc 1. Basically, viewers are shown a handful of outtakes which feature subliminal messages (locker door handles changing position mid-shot to look like a pentagram, and so on) with various letters appearing at the bottom of the screen. Apparently, rewinding this footage, the letter spell out locations in the film itself that feature other such visual tricks. To be brutally honest, I couldn't be bothered to do this, although I'm sure some people will knock themselves out trying to discover all sorts of hidden goodies.
Here, the UK release diverges from its US counterpart. The Region 1 release featured a single double-sided disc, with one side housing the film and extras and the other containing the film's soundtrack. The Region 1 DVD also included commentary by composer Carter Burwell on three scenes. Otherwise, barring the cast/director biographies, the entire contents of the second disc is unique to the UK release.
Borrowing an idea or two from the extras on the original Blair Witch Project, DVD, Disc 2 begins with two mock documentaries, each exploring the mythology behind the movie. The 45-minute Shadow of the Blair Witch focuses on the conviction of Jeffrey for the various murders, while the the 40-minute Burkitsville 7 covers the character of Rustin Parr (mentioned in the first Blair Witch Project) and his conviction for the murder of seven children. Both are interesting pieces of work that help further the mythology of the series, but they are nothing like as convincing as the excellent documentary on the DVD for the original film (in my opinion better than the movie itself).
Jeffrey Donavan, Erica Leerhsen and Joe Berlinger feature in a series of interviews (listed as "cast interviews", so one wonders what Berlinger is doing there) that run for just under 16 minutes in total. These interviews, which seem to be UK-sourced (an English-accented speaker can be heard briefly on a couple of occasions), look like they were created for a longer documentary, as the speakers tend to ramble a bit (suggesting that their footage would later have been cut down), and there are also a number of jump cuts suggesting that more dawdling has been removed. These are interesting interviews overall, though, although Berlinger repeats quite a bit of information from the commentary.
A rather hideous music video, two decidedly different trailers and a series of biographies, covering the five main cast members and the director, are also provided.
Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 is a better film than most people are willing to give it credit for, and Momentum have disappointed by providing a sub-standard transfer. The extras, however, are interesting, and differ in a number of ways from the US release, so there might still be something of value in this 2-disc set. If it's the film you want, though, I advise you to go for the Region 1 release.