The Blair Witch Project was a no-budget, three-slackers-lost-in-the-woods horror movie that unsettled and frightened a great many people (including me), and it achieved that feat, amazingly, by showing next to nothing. The film’s extraordinary grassroots success represented one of the rare moments in the Information Age when pop culture suddenly, if briefly, found itself arrested by mystery. Here was a movie that looked like a documentary, that showed almost nothing apart from a few stick sculptures, and precisely because of the herky-jerky randomness of its style, which lent the film a kind of spooky, this-is-happening-now immediacy, we for once didn’t need to see what we feared. The fear was in the not seeing.
In its scruffy, tossed-off way, The Blair Witch Project blotted out the standard thriller ”darkness,” replacing it with genuine godforsaken night. It was as if the Blair Witch existed on some half-earthly plane that only the electromagnetic rawness of video could reveal. In American culture, however, it has now become routine to treat mystery as a mortal enemy. We don’t just mistrust it; we attack it — with our technology, our talismans of information, our obsession with data and numbers and conspiracies and systems. Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 is a medium-budget, five-slackers-trapped-in-a-creaky-house horror movie that will unsettle and frighten almost no one, and it accomplishes this feat in a way that bad horror sequels always have: It shows everything. Gracelessly. With maximum crude ominousness.
Here, for example, are a few of the things that the movie shows: naked torsos with big, fat knives twisting through them, the blood gushing as if out of a Hammer studios vampire chiller; a dead baby surfacing in a lake; one of the heroes, head shaved, ranting away in a loony bin; a young girl’s waterlogged corpse, which drifts into view like a spectral version of Linda Blair in The Exorcist; fingers scratching through skin; a nubile ”witch” playing nude maypole around a tree, the image relayed by a videotape played backward; more impaled torsos, all edited with Shock Cut 101 obviousness; a foreboding owl or two. Yes, folks, Book of Shadows is a movie that tries to frighten us with owls. Is it any wonder that the picture, which deconstructs the already congealing Blair Witch lore by incorporating every horror cliché this side of a talking jack-o’-lantern, feels just a bit… arbitrary?
Unlike Blair Witch, Book of Shadows was shot primarily on film, and the difference is almost physical. There’s no grain to the movie’s anxiety. It’s just a flat, heebie-jeebies thriller — Friday the 13th with a hangover of indie cachet. Since none of the original actors have returned and the original filmmakers are just executive producers this time, it sounded like an inspired choice to tap, as the director and cowriter, Joe Berlinger, who is one half of the documentary team that made the extraordinary Paradise Lost (1996). That was a true-life horror movie about slaughter in the woods. Yet Berlinger brings to Book of Shadows none of his creepy suggestive flair for casual psycho terror. Instead, the film attempts to lure us into a kind of Burkittsville-woods version of the winking, shell-game, relax-it’s-only-a-movie sub-referencing that marked the two Scream sequels. In doing so, it tips its hand, almost perversely, in the wrong direction. The primal appeal of Blair Witch, after all, is that it didn’t feel like a movie.
Berlinger sends his five hip guinea pigs, loaded down with enough digital video equipment to make Lars von Trier drool, out into the woods, this time to take a tour of the sites made famous by Blair Witch, and to survey it all through a layer of deflationary irony. There are Heather Donahue jokes, as well as knowing references to the Coffin Rock massacre. The characters, who include a hyper-sarcastic Goth cynic (Kim Director), a curly-lipped vamp devoted to Wicca (Erica Leerhsen, who’s the breakout presence here), a pregnant nerd and her boyfriend (Tristen Skyler and Stephen Barker Turner), and the goateed tour guide (Jeffrey Donovan), bitch and parry and quarrel with more obnoxious high-strung petulance than any commune ever assembled by MTV’s The Real World. As they end up at an abandoned house that’s being used as a backwoods warehouse for Blair Witch paraphernalia, the actors, proficient as some of them are, just come off as high-cheekboned youth-star wannabes jostling for attention.
The degree to which Artisan’s infamous 1999 website sold The Blair Witch Project may, in itself, have been oversold by the media, but it was nonetheless dispiriting to see the site’s intricately contrived back story take precedence, for many viewers, over the movie itself. To them, the site made the film more ”real” not by extending its mystery but by destroying it — hooking it up to the whole contempo information nerve center. Book of Shadows might almost be the sequel to the website; it tramples on suggestiveness, on any hint that supernatural mischief can’t be known. The real demon, the film says, is us. Actually, the only thing vaguely demonic here is the ease with which a movie as scary and original as The Blair Witch Project can be downloaded into oblivion and compressed into this week’s product. C-