Following the release of the film The Blair Witch Project a disparate group of fans, academics and obsessives arrive in Burkittsville, Maryland, to tour the sites showcased in the original film. When they somehow lose several hours of their lives, they return to one of the group’s home to review the videotaped footage of the missing time. They discover unexplained supernatural phenomena and terrifying apparitions, which appear to have followed them back to the house.
The Blair Witch Project, directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, was a rare pop culture phenomenon when it was released to cinemas. With a global box office gross approaching $250m, its distributor Artisan Entertainment was understandably keen to capitalise on the popularity and release a sequel into theatres as soon as possible. Myrick and Sanchez had ideas, but they also wanted time to develop them properly – time that Artisan was unwilling to provide. Putting the original directors’ wishes to one side, they hired documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger to co-write (with Dick Beebe) and direct a commercial follow-up for release just one year later in 2000.
When Berlinger produced a relatively scare-free thriller about group hysteria and developing paranoia, Artisan’s producers forced a reshoot to introduce regular intercuts of a gory massacre in flashback. An entirely new prologue sequence was shot weeks before the film’s release, and the entire musical score was revised with popular rock artists including Marilyn Manson. We may never know Berlinger’s own vision for Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2; he has disowned the film and has never had the opportunity to edit together a director’s cut. The film with which we are left is arguably one of the most disappointing horror sequels of all time.
The frustrating part of Book of Shadows is there is a genuinely effective psychological thriller visible just upon the horizon. The idea of a group of cursed individuals, believing themselves to be relatively sedate and sane while unknowingly committing multiple homicides in a trance, is a potent one, and the film manages to present that story in momentary fits and starts. Unfortunately the cast has been saddled with deeply awful dialogue. For the film’s first 20 minutes it is particularly risible, as if the combined cast of Empire Records had strolled by accident into a horror movie. Despite showing some improvement in the later sequences, the characters never really get a chance to emerge as properly realised people. Their trauma over their supernatural experience never convinces, and as a follow-up to the visceral emotions of Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams and Joshua Leonard in The Blair Witch Project they fail very badly indeed.
The weird inter-cut footage of a night-time massacre throughout the film is jarring and intrusive, and feels exactly like what it is: a desperate attempt by a risk-averse studio to ‘jazz up’ the existing footage in an attempt to up the thrills and shock value. It fails completely. The tacked-on prologue, revealing one of the key characters to have suffered a mental breakdown in advance of the film’s events, is weak and unnecessary, and sets the audience off on the wrong foot from the beginning.
Book of Shadows did earn a profit upon release, but only grossed about 20 per cent of what its predecessor made. The critics were rightfully savage towards it, and it pretty much killed Blair Witch as a franchise. Last year’s generally effective sequel by director Adam Wingard felt a bit like a case of ‘too little, too late’. Had Artisan had the nerve to wait for Myrick and Sanchez to develop their own sequel, or even the nerve to let Berlinger achieve his own vision, Blair Witch could have been a really provocative and intriguing horror franchise. Instead it remains a singular masterpiece with two sequels: one enjoyable, and one really best left forgotten.