The Blair Witch Project was a glorious anomaly in part because it was the rare successful, zeitgeist-capturing horror phenomenon that refused to birth a lucrative and prolific franchise. That might also partly be because The Blair Witch Project seems a bit cursed. Of the three core actors, only Joshua Leonard was able to continue to make a living as an actor. A decade after The Blair Witch Project ignited an avalanche of parodies, homages, and knock-offs, Michael C. Williams was moving furniture for a living while studying to be a guidance counselor. Heather Donahue grew medical marijuana in between intermittent acting gigs, while directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez were unable to leverage the incredible success of their debut into anything more impressive than a few forgotten direct-to-DVD horror movies.
In some ways, the filmmakers and the would-be film series were victims of their own success. The Blair Witch Project parodies were so ubiquitous (Eminem even popped up in one, the particularly awful Da Hip Hop Witch) that the franchise couldn’t resort to its old tricks the second time around without engendering waves of mocking laughter. The Blair Witch Project was spoofed so extensively that after a certain point, it became fodder for parody first and horror film second.
Nonetheless, Artisan, the company that made a mint off the first Blair Witch Project’s remarkable success in 1999, wanted a sequel and wanted one as fast as possible, so they handed the keys to the franchise to a choice both unlikely and potentially inspired: acclaimed documentarian Joe Berlinger, a newcomer to narrative features but an old pro at spooky tales of murder, paranoia, and persecution thanks to his acclaimed Paradise Lost documentaries.
Berlinger had a vision for the film that would become Book Of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. He wanted to use the hype and controversy surrounding the original film as a springboard to explore the slippery line between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy, and documentary and fiction film. Artisan had ideas of its own, and according to Book Of Shadows’ audio commentary, Berlinger and Artisan embarked on a brutal, hard-fought war over the film’s soul (if a film this mercenary can be said to have a soul) that everyone lost. Book Of Shadows was such a flop that a planned third film to be released in 2001 was abandoned.
The compromises Berlinger had to make to satisfy Artisan’s ideas of a commercially viable horror film begin with a clumsy opening text—included over Berlinger’s objections—that reads, “The following is a fictionalized reenactment of events that occurred after the release of The Blair Witch Project. It is based on public records, local Maryland TV broadcasts, and hundreds of taped interviews. To protect the privacy of certain individuals, some names have been changed.” It then cuts to a scream and, in rapid succession, Kurt Loder on MTV News, Jay Leno on The Tonight Show, Conan O’Brien and Andy Richter on Late Night With Conan O’Brien, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel on Siskel & Ebert, and Jules Asner on E! News, all commenting on the culture-wide frenzy whipped up by The Blair Witch Project. This makes Book Of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 the first horror sequel in existence to open with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert reviewing the original, explicitly positing Book Of Shadows as the most meta of horror sequels. Rather than deny the mania that accompanied Blair Witch Project’s release, the film deliberately makes that excitement and ambiguity its primary focus.
The film opens by exploring the impact the massive worldwide success of The Blair Witch Project had on the inhabitants of Burkittsville, Maryland, the sleepy small town that provided the setting for the first film. For the folks of Burkittsville, the Blair Witch phenomenon proved both a blessing and a curse, a windfall that drove tourism dollars to the town and an embarrassment that, in the words of one resident, transformed an ordinary small town into the contemporary version of the Manson Family’s Spahn Ranch. Then again, infamy is not without its rewards: According to the film, tourists were so fascinated by the town’s fictional history that they were willing to pay $10 a pop for rocks from its hallowed ground.
One resident speaks, with palpable bitterness, of the Blair Witch Project filmmakers’ shortsightedness in not thinking through the possible ramifications of labeling the film a documentary and setting it in a real town instead of a fictional burgh. Then again, how could they have envisioned that their weird little no-budget, no-script horror movie would become a global phenomenon whose effects can still be felt?
Berlinger and Artisan fought so extensively that it’s a little surprising that the filmmaker was afforded an opportunity to hop on the audio commentary and explain how the film would have been a million times better and more interesting if his ideas weren’t vetoed and overruled at every turn. The Blair Witch Project succeeded because it was a radically different, new and innovative horror film, not despite those qualities. It also benefitted from a complete dearth of studio interference: It was a real indie created on the fly by talented newcomers still learning their craft.
The filmmakers of The Blair Witch Project were blessed by the naïveté and obliviousness of youth and inexperience. They weren’t experienced enough to realize that films are made by artists, but cinematic product like Book Of Shadows tends to be crudely assembled via a committee populated primarily by executives terrified of losing their jobs if a seemingly surefire prospect like a Blair Witch sequel under-performs due to an excess of audience-alienating “originality.” Artists aspire to break new ground; executives tend to gravitate toward the tried and true.
Berlinger tried to satisfy Artisan’s angry directives and his muse simultaneously. To cite a pertinent early example, Artisan wanted a gory sequence in a mental hospital to establish the unhinged past of a character played by Jeffrey Donovan. Berlinger fought the move, arguing that he didn’t want to present any of the characters as villains or antagonists. In what might be construed as a wicked joke that offers commentary on the studio’s unwanted intrusions, the requested sequence takes the form of Donovan being force-fed a queasy-looking liquid by macabre doctors inside the creepy mental hospital. It’s a campy setpiece about force-feeding that itself was forced on the director by a skittish studio. Berlinger was able to live with himself by convincing himself the scene was an homage to famed documentarian Frederick Wiseman, but he’s not doing Wiseman any favors by paying tribute to him through a kitsch-fest that looks less like a groundbreaking cinema vérité documentary than a commercial for American Horror Story.
According to the commentary, Berlinger originally intended for the film to begin as a straight satire before segueing gradually into atmospheric horror. Berlinger wanted to make a horror film that shattered the mold. He wanted the film to open to the silky-smooth sounds of Frank Sinatra’s “Witchcraft.” Instead he got Marilyn Manson. Berlinger wanted to go light on the gore and heavy on atmosphere. Instead there’s all manner of stock spookery before the opening credits even close, quick cuts to bloodshed and dismemberment intercut with soaring aerial footage of the woods (which Berlinger points out in the commentary were an homage to his own Paradise Lost films).
Donovan plays a sketchy, unreliable true believer who sees The Blair Witch Project 17 times upon his release from the mental hospital and sets up a tourism business called “The Blair Witch-Hunt” to exploit enduring public interest in the supernatural happenings of Burkittsville. Donovan is joined on the Blair Witch-Hunt bus by characters designed to represent various responses to the first film. Erica Leerhsen represents a Wiccan community that felt the film misrepresented its culture. Donovan represents the entrepreneurial spirit at its most shameless. (Metaphorically, he’s aligned with the cash-hungry folks over at Artisan.) An author (Stephen Barker Turner) and his pregnant partner (Tristine Skyler) embody skeptical intellectualism. Finally, a goth (Kim Director) introduced sucking on a cigarette while draped dramatically over a grave, stands in for goths enamored of The Blair Witch’s spooky mojo. Director doesn’t believe in supernatural mumbo-jumbo. When Donovan asks why she’s on the tour, she takes a deep drag of a cigarette and says, “I thought the movie was cool.” Book Of Shadows is extremely meta, but not quite meta enough for Donovan to then look directly into the camera and say, all spooky-like, “You mean the movie whose sequel we’re currently in?” while the Twilight Zone theme drones on eerily in the background.
The Blair Witch hunters initially cut a comic appearance: Leerhsen is a goofy caricature of a new-age space cadet who wants to, like, spiritually commune with the Blair Witch so that she can be the renowned Wiccan’s protégé. (All the best mentors, needless to say, are ambiguously vengeful spirits of the long-dead.) Donovan is an incorrigible opportunist, while Director is a sassy, shit-talking goth badass. Only the couple fails to fulfill some broad cultural stereotype.
At the campfire that first night, characters make jokes about original Blair Witch Project star Heather Donahue’s propensity for screaming and freaking out and riff on how strange it is that the terrified threesome of The Blair Witch Project never engaged in some hot terror-sex, all while drinking beer and smoking weed in time-honored horror-movie tradition. A little toking and a whole lot of booze turns into a full-on bacchanal. The revelers wake up to discover all manner of spooky shit has happened during the night after they collectively blacked out: Gone are the cameras used to document the expedition (but not, strangely enough, the tapes of the night before), and the author’s precious, precious manuscript has been shredded by a mysterious entity.
But who or what could be responsible for all this motherfuckery? Could it be the Blair Witch? But that was just a movie! As Berlinger says throughout the commentary, Book Of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 is all about blurring the lines between fiction and reality, but the film quickly grows uninterested in reality. Skyler has a miscarriage, and while in the hospital, she sees a creepy, backwards-dancing demon-child that’s been shoe-horned into the proceedings so that she will all but run out of the hospital and head back into the woods with a bunch of freaks.
Book Of Shadows’ framing device has Donovan being interrogated, after some heavy shit goes down, by a cartoonishly bumbling blowhard sheriff (Lanny Flaherty) who denies the Blair Witch’s existence and has zero patience for the occult-addled foolishness of the young people of today. These scenes seem to belong in a different movie; the cold, calculating, ruthless Donovan being interrogated bears only a passing resemblance to the manic goofball he plays in every other scene.
The action then shifts from the spooky old woods to an abandoned broom factory, where the group watches tapes of their lost night in an attempt to discern what really happened, then suffer through yet another visit from a freaky backwards-dancing child ghost the filmmakers seem intent on making the film’s breakout star.
At this point Book Of Shadows shifts from a failed satire to a ham-fisted, and non-scary haunted-house movie filled with characters whose motivations make no sense. It’s never remotely clear, for example, why a couple that has just suffered the trauma of a miscarriage decides to head into a dirty van en route to an abandoned broom factory instead of renting a hotel room for the night and then getting the hell out of town. True, the woman was in a hurry to escape the freaky backwards-dancing child ghost, but fuck if that supernatural little fucker didn’t find her way to the abandoned broom factory as well.
In a muddled replay of The Blair Witch Project, the tourists begin freaking out and see ominous visions. But what’s real and what’s fantasy? Why do the women suddenly have strange, vaguely occult markings on their flesh? And why, for the love of God, does the film interrupt its non-starting attempts at horror with an extended, broadly comic interlude involving Director sassing the disapproving townsfolk during a trip into town to pick up beer? Book Of Shadows can’t seem to decide whether it wants to be The Exorcist or The Munsters.
In the final act, paranoia and dread take over as the group members turn on each other after receiving news that a tourist group they ran into earlier in the film was slaughtered in what appears to be an occult ritual. Their already shaky sense of self is further undermined when they discover footage of themselves madly waving around knives in a blood-soaked orgy of decadence, the lost night none of them can remember. By the bloody, portentous, and overwrought third act, any pretensions of satire or social commentary have been abandoned in favor of clichés.
Book Of Shadows was supposed to be a quickie cash-in horror sequel that was nonetheless distinctive, a playfully cerebral commentary on media violence and groupthink married to an atmospheric psychological thriller. Instead, it ended up falling into the same traps that have bedeviled horror sequels since their inception: the need to provide more of the same, with additional blood and a bigger budget.
Book Of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 received such a toxic reception that it all but killed the franchise, though I have a bang-up idea for the concluding entry to the Blair Witch trilogy: It’s about a group of tourists obsessed with the beloved cult smash Book Of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, who travel to Burkittsville to experience the legendary backwards-dancing ghost child, the crazy Blair Witch-Hunt van, and of course, the famous abandoned broom factory. Why should the franchise’s crazy hall-of-mirrors aesthetic end due to one flop? Maybe Book Of Shadows’ problem wasn’t that it was too meta or obsessed with its own homemade mythology; maybe it was that it wasn’t meta or self-obsessed enough.
Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Fiasco