Last summer's The Blair Witch Project was a bona fide pop-culture phenomenon, as well as one of the most original horror films in ages, a visionary chiller that combined the immediacy of a documentary with the unsettling mood of a Val Lewton film. Its success made a sequel inevitable, but faced with the unenviable task of trying to capture lightning in a bottle twice, the directors of the original wisely opted out, handing over the reins to documentarian Joe Berlinger. The director of Brother's Keeper and Paradise Lost, Berlinger has a feel for the gothic horrors of rural America, and he and co-screenwriter Dick Beebe came up with an ingenious premise that cannily acknowledges Project's impact by casting its leads as opportunists inspired by the original. Taking place after the release of Project, Book Of Shadows stars Jeffrey Donovan as the guide for a group searching for the Blair Witch: a couple (Donovan and Tristine Skyler), a Goth (Kim Director), and a Wiccan (Erica Leerhsen) who explains to anyone in earshot that Wiccans believe in nature, not evil. After a night of drunken revelry leads to unexplained spookiness, they sensibly adjourn to Donovan's nearby makeshift dwelling, a creepy abandoned factory riddled with bad karma and home to a gyrating child ghost. From there, matters go from bad to worse, as paranoia mounts and the line between the real and the imagined grows increasingly blurry. The Blair Witch Project derived much of its understated power from its mastery of inference and suggestion, the way its minimalist plot invited viewers' minds to travel to places far more terrifying than anything that could be shown onscreen. Book Of Shadows, by contrast, proves insultingly literal. After all, why rely on the power of suggestion when you can fill the screen with blood, T&A, undead children, a cartoonish madman in a straitjacket, and other familiar horror fodder? Where the original left its premise uncluttered, Book Of Shadows throws in such hoary fright-film tropes as telepathy, an unwanted pregnancy, a disbelieving sheriff, and a creepy misfit fresh from a stint in a mental hospital (or the "loo-nee bee-yann," as a Boss Hogg-like sheriff puts it). Atrociously written and acted and as scary as an episode of Frasier, the film's exploitation of Donovan's mental illness and Skyler's pregnancy is as repellent as it is ineffective. The residents of Burkittsville, Maryland (the site of the original) sparked a mini-controversy last year by objecting to having their town depicted as a haven for supernatural mischief. They can take comfort in knowing that Book Of Shadows' mercenary awfulness should kill off Blair Witch mania once and for all.