Following the incredible financial success of The Blair Witch Project, Artisan Entertainment was clamoring to push out a sequel to ride its own coattails. There were some pretty creative ideas thrown around for this one, but the meddling of market-research driven producers is also highly evident. The movie ended up making a substantial amount of money, but the outcome critically was… well… not great. Now that we’ve had almost two decades to cool off we took another look at it. Was this as bad as everyone remembers or did it get a bum rap for being a derivative cash grab? Check our spoiler-filled discussion below.
Reviewed by: Mark
Following the release of The Blair Witch Project the town of Burkittsville Maryland is inundated with tourists fascinated with the movie. The townspeople generally dislike this attention, but some take the opportunity to sell cheap bullshit related to the film. Among them is used-to-be-a-spy Michael Westen, played by Jeffrey Donovan, going under deep cover as Jeffrey, long time Burkittsville resident and psychologically troubled outpatient. Okay, so I’m injecting the Burn Notice subplot into a movie that came out well before that show did, but I’m convinced it makes the movie more fun to watch so I’m sticking with it.
Jeffrey goes full entrepreneur and opens a relatively successful shop selling twigs, hats, t-shirts, and bewitched soil samples. The first part of this movie is actually a rather comedic indictment of the absurdity of hysterical consumerism. Deciding to take his business to the next level, he starts a tour group that will venture into the woods to see the sights of the movie. On the inaugural tour he is joined by Stephen (Stephen Barker Turner) and Tristen (Tristine Skyler), a couple working on a book about The Blair Witch Project; Erica (Erica Leerhsen), a wiccan attempting to commune with her misunderstood sister-witch; and Kim (Kim Director), a goth chick who thought the movie was cool. They camp in the remains of serial killer Rustin Parr’s house, the location where the tapes were found from the original film. Once camp is set up things get turnt, lit, trill, or whatever vernacular people at the time were using to describe ragers thrown in burned down houses.
The next morning the crew awakens to find that their campsite has been trashed and all their stuff either missing or destroyed. They do, however, find some tapes due to the clairvoyant goth of the group having a vision that their tapes would be in the same place that the original tapes were found. Determined to figure out what happened to them the previous night, they return to Jeffrey’s warehouse-house to start tape-watching. There’s also a minor sub-plot regarding Tristen having a miscarriage that occurs here but it is completely unrelated to the plot so I’m going to blow right by it.
As the group is reviewing the tapes they begin to find strange fragments of tape that point to supernatural happenings. Erica dances naked backwards around a sapling that was a gigantic tree the day before. The timestamp on the video jumps forward and backward for seemingly no reason. While Jeffrey does his thing with the tapes, Erica disappears to go do Wicca things. She is later found, naked again, dead in a closet. It isn’t until Tristen starts speaking in tongues that they realize that they have to press the computer keystrokes backward to unlock the secrets of the tapes.
What is revealed is that they never went to sleep the previous night. They were all possessed, presumably by the blair witch, and danced around naked doing witch things. The tape reveals Tristen to be the primary culprit and the group turns on her, eventually resulting in her tying a rope around her own neck and jumping from the rafters.
You think that’s it? That’s not it. This movie has a lot of twists and turns. After Tristen jumps to her death the group is confronted by the police who have been tracking them since the group of slaughtered hikers were found at Coffin Rock. Shocked to find two more dead bodies inside the house they take the remnants of the group into custody. As the police review the tapes the find a wholly different account of what occurred the night before. Tristen doesn’t act possessed and the group ties the rope around her neck and throws her from the rafters as she begs them to stop. Kim doesn’t just buy some beer, she brutally stabs a store clerk with a nail file. Jeffrey murders Erica and stashes her in a closet. As these facts are revealed the group comes to the realization that they were all possessed by the witch and what they perceived to be real was some supernatural projection bullshit.
What the Movie Does Right
The movie’s introduction detailing what has happened to Burkittsville following the release of the first movie is hilarious. One of the film’s big themes is hysteria, particularly in reference to fads and societal pressure. By opening the movie with monologues about people selling rocks online for exorbitant sums of money, and introducing Jeffrey as a simple roadside stand vendor trying to make a quick buck they establish early the general vibe they want backing the narrative.
Speaking of narrative, I really like the idea that they were going for in this one. It’s very notable that this isn’t just a repeat of The Blair Witch Project. No one gets lost in the woods. No one’s tent gets fucked with. In fact, they basically blaze right by the only part of the movie that would’ve been remotely similar to its predecessor. Instead they opt for a relatively complex approach leveraging some of the lesser known canon from the first film. I recognize that this was rushed quite a bit, and there’s some blatant hollywood-meddling evident, but taken on balance I think the story of this one is actually a strong suit. That being said, I’m notably a pretty big sucker for the supernatural hallucination reality-isn’t-objective approach to storytelling. Hell, I even gave Bye Bye Man points for that shit, and that movie was awful.
Lastly, this one could probably go down as what the movie does wrong, but casting Jeffrey Donovan is great. His performance is over the top, yes, but he does over the top better than most. He is at points hard to watch, but I honestly think casting nearly anyone else in this role would have been a complete and utter train wreck. Seriously, name someone else who could’ve executed the script as well as Donovan does (and also would’ve been down to shoot the movie in the first place). Can’t do it, can you?
What the Movie Does Wrong
First and foremost, the complexity of the plot. Like I said earlier, I think the story as a whole is a big strength of this movie, but they hand a lot of unnecessary bullshit on that scaffolding. Does there need to be a miscarriage sub-plot? No. Does there need to be spooky children ghosts? No. Is the Jeffrey being institutionalized in a psych ward backstory need to be there? No, and in fact it hurts the overall narrative of the movie. This is what I mean by Hollywood-meddling. These are easy and tropey storylines that are injected in to make the film more marketable, but ultimately just make it less focused.
Speaking of ghost children, they look terrible. In a movie that is largely light on effects I’m left staring at these sometimes-there-sometimes-translucent ghosts of dead children that look awful. This is the makeup and costuming I would expect from a high school production of Oliver Twist.
Lastly, this movie has one of the most insanely distracting 90s time capsule soundtracks you will ever come across. I was wildly unsurprised to find out after the fact that Book of Shadows was nominated for Most Intrusive Score at the Stinkers Bad Movie Awards. In fact, I was more surprised to learn that the Stinkers Bad Movie Awards were a real thing. You have Marilyn Manson, Queens of the Stone Age, Rob Zombie, Nickelback, System of a Down, and last but certainly not least P.O.D. just to name a few. That also blows right by the slew of original pseudo-industrial vibe music put together by Carter Burwell just for the movie. Glancing at the list now, there are 33 songs listed for this 90 minute movie. That’s a new song every 2 minutes and 45 seconds. Even if the songs were good, which they mostly aren’t, that is way too many songs.
Oh yeah, and there’s no motherfucking book. Find one fucking prop to justify your backwards-ass named movie.
Story: 6 - This is one of the things the movie does right, assuming you can get past the extraneous parts of it. Overall this is actually a surprisingly unique story that is solid through all three acts.
World-Building / Immersion: 5.5 - Now that I’m looking at this again, I think I may have gone a little high on this category. There’s some technology that didn’t age well, there’s the aforementioned soundtrack, and the acting in general can be… difficult. That being said, I found something about this movie to be surprisingly charming and watchable so I’m chalking this one up to X-Factor.
Scare-Factor: 3 - There’s some spooky stuff here. It’s a psychological movie that has heights, dogs, ghosts, witchcraft, and a pretty realistic hanging. Ultimately there isn’t much here that is actively scary, and more just disturbing content.
Effects (or Judicious Lack Thereof): 5 - Just below average on our 1-10 scale. This is mostly judicious lack thereof, but I’m knocking it for how incredibly bad the ghost children look. They’re supposed to be Rustin Parr’s murder victims and instead they look like extras in a Les Mis.
Overall: 5.5 - I kinda like leaning on X-Factor to justify my ratings. This movie is inherently flawed and feels like it was rushed out the door. It’s more wacky than it is intense. That being said, I found this movie to be fun, watchable, and unique. Beyond that, I actually think this would form a great double-feature with its predecessor.