This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site, theOneliner.com
When the original Blair Witch Project was released in 1999 it was notable as much for it’s social engineering as it was as an original (if largely ineffectual) addition to the horror genre. Given the tremendous profits generated by the stick figure based snotty nosed extravaganza it’s no surprise that studios clamoured for a swift follow up. The original creators having no stomach for it, the reins were handed over to documentary director Joe Berlinger presumably with the expectation of him repeating the first film with a new cast. Subverting this he’s taken a good hard look at the three ring media circus surrounding the release of the first flick and used that as a basis for his first feature film, and while it makes some valid points the one base Berlinger seems to have forgotten to cover is the most critical – making it an interesting film.
In a slightly post-modern, self referential fashion that seemed to irritate people far more than it has a right to, this film follows Jeff (Jeffrey Patterson)’s Blair Witch Hunt, a trek through the woods of Burkittsville following the path of Heather and co’s travels. His group consists of wannabe Goth chick Kim (Kim Diamond), rational truth seeker and documentarian Stephen (Stephen Ryan Parker) and his girlfriend Tristine (Tristen Ryler), rounded off with Wiccan chick Erica (Erica Leerhsen). Carting around enough AV equipment to monitor an area the size of Nebraska they document their trek on film, but after the first night’s camp they wake to a scattering of torn paper and a smashing of Jeff’s cameras. More worrying is the six hour gap in their memories. Finding the tapes from the cameras, they all set back off to Jeff’s dilapidated house / disused factory to piece together what happened.
The bulk of movie take place in this unusual household environment, which is a brave departure for the franchise. Sadly, the common failing of nigh on every teen horror rears it’s ugly head once more as the underwritten disposable teens show little character outside of their broad generalisation and it’s difficult to identify with them. As such, when the brown smelly stuff interfaces with the fan it’s all too easy to simply not care. Berlinger takes a more subtle approach to the frighteners, mostly eschewing gore in favour of the psychological fear of losing your marbles as weird, purposefully movie inspired events occur, or seem to. This, as with most of the work Berlinger puts into the flick is a good idea. It’s just neutered by so-so acting, inexperienced direction and poor execution.
His basic premise for the movie is a treatise on the nature of the first flick, and the blurring of the lines between fact and fiction. As a documentary producer, Berlinger has mixed opinions on Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez presenting the film as an actual documentary and seeks to comment on the barely credible statistic that forty percent of an audience of Blair Witch walked out of the cinema thinking that it was real. Berlinger reckons this to be a product of the trust placed in media images and a vast lack of discernment that society has in this age, although that’s just a dressed up corollary of my own ‘people are dumb’ theorem. While readers of this site show an enviable erudition that makes them an invaluable addition to any dinner party, the great unwashed tend to exhibit qualities that drag the lowest common denominator lower still. I can’t think of any other explanation for the success of trash like I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here.
The problem this creates for Berlinger is that he tries to present a ‘rational’ explanation for the events of the film by having the characters share a very detailed group delusion and have their actions be a product of ‘media saturation of violent images’ from horror flicks and the like. In itself that’s nonsensical to the point that you don’t need me to point it out, but it’s exacerbated by the film’s characters seeming to be fairly bright and certainly not obsessed in the scary, nutty kind of way with the first film. Without these two characteristics the rationale for credible explanations evaporates, leaving the unsatisfying alternative of ‘the Witch did it and ran away’.
Berlinger should in a way be congratulated for thinking so deeply about what could have easily been the shot as the same film as it’s original but with different teens running around with snotty noses. At times listening to his comments it becomes obvious that he’s getting worryingly side tracked by trying to tie the film to both his previous documentaries and other horror movie staples (again for the media saturation gimmick) at the expense of the main story. These subtexts are only going to become apparent on a deeper consideration than a first viewing will evoke, and there’s little reason given to think about the movie at all after the credits roll, let alone watch it again or listen to his comments.
He seems almost disappointed that critics haven’t picked up all of the above subtleties, but that’s because they’ve very sensibly focused on what the vast majority of people will care about. The very unsubtle reality is that Book of Shadows isn’t any good. Even Berlinger admits it’s a commercial horror film, and as such there’s only one goal to shoot for. Is it scary? No. Hell no. It’s not even trying. A heavily made up girl walking backwards is not the stuff of nightmares. It’s not even laughable. Similarly the hastily shot and edited together scenes added at the studios behest of the character’s crimes fail to look even partially realistic, an awful attempt at gore that’s never scary when done well let alone poorly.
Perhaps shooting the film on 35 mil wasn’t the best choice when the rushed production of this film has resulted in some rather tawdry production values. Even my typically lackadaisical eye for detail rather easily spots the umpteen odd Styrofoam rock structures and other such cheap and nasty effects. The cast don’t do a terrible job of their roles but it’s all too obvious that it’s their first feature outing being directed by a guy on his first fiction feature outing. It’s perhaps this lack of grounding that resulted in Berlinger giving the studios the cut they wanted rather than fighting for his original vision, and I’m almost positive it would have been a far more effective film. Certainly it would be difficult to be less so.
All the carefully observed social subtexts in the world aren’t going to make an iota of difference to said world if the basic narrative isn’t compelling enough to warrant closer inspection, and that’s why Book of Shadows was so poorly received by critics and real live people. It’s largely boring, frequently amateurish and diametrically opposite to frightening. Coming at a time when a fair proportion of people were re-examining their opinions of it’s elder brother, Book of Shadows wasn’t only disastrous in it’s own execution but also played no small part in pulling down the temple created by the supporters of the first film. Of course, the foundations were shaky in the first place, built on a rather fickle ground of hype that particularly susceptible to earthquakes so it’s not fair to place the blame in the shoulders of Berlinger. He’s an intelligent film maker who was brave enough to take some risks and chances with the standard sequel formula, but ended up rolling snake eyes. It’s a pity for him, but more so for the audience who have to suffer a film with little entertainment value no matter how much though went into it’s creation.