In 1999, a small budget “documentary” by a pair of unknown producers hit cinemas and left the world reeling. Of course I’m referring to The Blair Witch Project, one of the earliest “documentary” horror movies, if not the most popular and recognizable in that genre. A movie made for only $60,000 would go on to gross a whopping $248 million worldwide and would revolutionize the genre of films referred to now as “found footage” horror. So how does one follow that up!? Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 was a chance to not only produce a worthy sequel but to turn the whole mystique of the original back in on itself.
What made the original so successful was due not only to the content of the film but to the eerie marketing and vague details of its “actors”. In fact I can still remember being convinced that this was, in fact, the real deal. Actual found footage of an unexplained event. The actors were listed on various sites, including IMDB, as “missing, presumed dead”! Obviously not the case but at the time it was totally unique. Lightning in a bottle that has been thoroughly used up.
Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 steps away from the “documentary” and takes a meta look at its own impact on society and culture. The story focuses on the hype and hysteria that the first film created and the surge in interest in the very real town of Burkittsville, Maryland.
Setting The Stage
The film begins with “real-world” television coverage of the The Blair Witch Project and how it has been inspiring fans and paranormal chasers from around the world to flock to this newly discovered witch mecca. It’s here where the audience meets Jeffrey Patterson. Played by Jeffrey Donavan (Sicario: Day of the Soldado, Burn Notice), Jeff is an overly obsessed fan who runs a small business capitalizing off the influx of tourists, complete with a web store hocking everything from t-shirts to vials of dirt from the area. Also offering tours of the woods and key locations seen in the film he takes a group out for a night that they won’t soon forget. Or rather they do forget….and that’s when the terror begins.
Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 was a chance to not only produce a worthy sequel but to turn the whole mystique of the original back in on itself.
The characters included in this group represent aspects of those interested in horror and/or the paranormal making them a perfect fit for the narrative the director was constructing. First up are Tristen and Stephen played by Tristine Skylar (Chlorine) and Stephen Barker Turner (Madam Secretary) respectively. A pair of graduate students studying mass hysteria and mythology. Theirs is the point of view of the typical skeptic. There is something in these stories that stir up emotions in people without their being any factual substance to them. And that has brought them to this once sleepy town now the center of this phenomena. The search for the truth.
The sudden interest in witches, witchcraft, the occult and its demonization motivated Erica, played by Erica Leerhsen (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), a Wiccan, to make her pilgrimage to Burkittsville. With the hopes to set the record straight on her….craft (See what I did there?). Frustration at the way that films depicted their religious practices leached into the movie in the form of this character. She is a literal representation of the feelings of the Wiccan community as a whole.
Rounding out the group is Kim played by Kim Director (The Deuce). Kim is an angsty, stereotypical Goth with a morbid fascination for these sorts of things. A hardcore horror enthusiast no longer content with just watching the movies, she wants to visit the locations. Live the experience behind them. And she definitely gets more than she signed up for.
The Witch In The Woods
What sets Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 apart from the first is obvious. No longer relying on the found footage setting, the sequel instead takes a complete left turn. It takes an often uncomfortable look at societies obsession with tragedy. Like a train wreck one can’t help but look at, the disappearance of those in the woods along with the legend surrounding it have become a beacon. It’s a ghost tour turned up to 11.
Witchcraft is ingrained within American history dating back to before the country was established on paper. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t at least heard stories of the Salem Witch Trials in passing. Established in the first film, the legend of the Blair Witch herself, Elly Kedward, is further explored in Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. Giving her more of a tragic and mythological status in the Black Hills of Maryland.
The legend of Elly Kedward is expanded and eventually, combined with Blair Witch (2016) would become a tale that could’ve been plucked right out of our own history books.
The Unremembered Evening
The most terrifying sequences the film has to offer aren’t even served up as they’re happening in the traditional sense either. A mesmerizing pagan ritual and gruesome murder of a competing tour group at the infamous Coffin Rock occur their first evening out in the forest. When the group awakes it is to a scene of complete chaos. Cameras destroyed. Tapes missing. And Tristen and Stephen’s research ripped to shreds and snowing down on them. And no one knows what happened. It’s not until later that evening, back at Jeff’s wooded compound that the horror is revealed. The audience experience’s the shocking revelation along with its own participants. With no one remembering any of their actions.
What the film may lack in the way of the very personal scare of a faux documentary it makes up for in droves with increasing paranoia. It’s hard to pin down what is real and what is illusion (or delusion) when the characters on-screen don’t even know what is happening themselves. If they can’t trust their own eyes, their own memories about what happened, how can you?
Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 is a much more cerebral offering than its predecessor, and in the end delivers up a particularly haunting lack of resolve. Was what happened that night real? Or were they caught up in the mass hysteria of the moment and driven insane?
The Blair Witch Project was such a massive success that Artisan Entertainment didn’t want to waste time producing a sequel. However, original directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez and their film company, Haxan Films, were not ready. This prompted Artisan to completely side-step them. Bringing on Joe Berlinger (Raising Hell: The Visions of Clive Barker) who had previously only done true crime documentaries. Interesting, as this was to be a non-documentary sequel to a faux documentary.
Joe spent time in the town of Burkittsville for research and inspiration for Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. Taking time to glean the impact the film had on the towns real-life residents. He also intentionally turned the spotlight back on the horror genre as a whole; a commentary on what about horror and violence that lends itself to entertainment for the masses. Other movies have played with this idea, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) comes to mind along with his other slasher masterpiece: Scream (1996). What sets this one apart is the macabre idea that many are willing to profit on horrific events in any way they can.
Legacy of the Witch
The film released on October 27th, 2000 and would stack up only $47.7 million at the box office worldwide. Exceeding its $15 million dollar budget but only making one-fifth that of the original.
Then there’s the reviews…
This movie is currently sitting at a 14% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and Roger Ebert only gave it two stars after giving the original four. Fans are also divided when it comes to their memories of it. But I’d ask those that weren’t impressed 18 years ago to give it another chance. It’s not a perfect movie by any stretch of the imagination. Had Artisan not meddled and forced Berlinger’s hand to re-cut certain sequences it absolutely could’ve been stronger. Even more psychologically unsettling. But it offered a breath of fresh air from the original while still remaining faithful to its legend.
In a our horror genre, one ripe with remakes, being original is a risk but one always worth taking. For better or worse Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 took that risk. I for one am glad they did.