*½/**** Image B+ Sound A Extras B-
starring Jeffrey Donovan, Kim Director, Erica Leerhsen, Tristine Skyler
screenplay by Dick Beebe and Joe Berlinger
directed by Joe Berlinger
by Bill Chambers Despite the brainy posturing of director/co-writer Joe Berlinger, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 will probably never be canonized in a sequel debate, that lunchtime activity of film freaks everywhere which has brought a nerdish ascendancy to, among the handful, The Godfather Part II and The Empire Strikes Back. Why? Well, for starters, it's pretentious as hell; when the DVD liner notes--written by no less than Berlinger himself--for a fast-tracked cash-grab include such descriptive phrases as "mollify the cynics" and "post-modern approach," you know you're in for everything but a good time.
Scream 2--a self-reflexive sequel whose box-office success arguably had greater bearing on the decision to make Book of Shadows than The Blair Witch Project did--established what I consider two definitive rules about second instalments to which Book of Shadows actually adheres:
- The body count is bigger
- The death scenes are more elaborate
(Jamie Kennedy's Randy broaches a third, only to be interrupted by David Arquette's Dewey.) Indeed, the corpses pile up in Book of Shadows, and its death scenes are more elaborate than The Blair Witch Project's (by virtue of happening, for the most part, on screen). But while The Blair Witch Project left a lot to the imagination, its continuation leaves much to interpretation, and therefore comes across as more ambivalent than ambiguous. Following a night of binge-drinking in the Black Hills of Burkittsville, Maryland, four fans of The Blair Witch Project (and/or its phenomenal aftermath) and their certifiable tour guide awaken with group amnesia to a vandalized campsite. Videotapes are the sole, patchy evidence of what went down after the moon came up, i.e., murder and (naked) dancing.
The first picture was of simple, nightmarish thrills that Book of Shadows prefers to comment on rather than top--its scares are hooked on the hype surrounding the fictitious original, so that the mass hysteria The Blair Witch Project supposedly caused (I don't recall any "War of the Worlds"-type panic in the streets) returns in the form of distrust between the tourists; Berlinger, one half a gifted documentary team (he co-directed the acclaimed Paradise Lost films with Bruce Sinofsky), should've opted to write a FILM COMMENT piece instead.
Almost worse than Berlinger's exercises in intellectual terror (the characters halt to contemplate every last boo, which we ourselves would miss the majority of if not for the home-video release's accompanying tutorial), however, is his desire, expressed in both said liner notes and on the disc's commentary track, to apologize for The Blair Witch Project's demonization of Wicca. Yeesh. Perhaps Berlinger doesn't see the irony: his Book of Shadows, in condemning media-obsessed youth and the dangers of, gasp, alcohol, is equally guilty of the puritanism that stigmatized witches for all time. Oh, but for Randy's final rule--Book of Shadows is lost without it.
Artisan Entertainment's Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 DVD has more going for it than does the movie itself. In addition to Berlinger's (pronounced "ber-linje-r") sour-grapes commentary (no creative difference goes unturned), the disc features a couple of progressive (albeit controversial) bonuses. First and foremost in my book is the DVD's status as the debut DVD+CD--side 'B' offers the soundtrack on the compact disc format, and it's operable in all players except car decks. Carter Burwell's score makes a full appearance on this side (along with four noxious hard rock cuts--why is metal considered scary?), while the composer himself contributes informative comments to three key scenes on the DVD side. (Though I normally admire--and often adore--Burwell's stuff, his Book of Shadows music is overly reminiscent of Charles Bernstein's noodlings for A Nightmare on Elm Street.)
"The Secret of Esrever" is a short intended for backward viewing, as that will spell out the clues required to find spooky, subliminal images within Book of Shadows. Unfortunately, my DVD player kept skipping past letters when in esrever mode. The remedy, of course, was to watch forwards in real-time taking notes, then re-read the results back-to-front. But by that point, I had expended almost as much effort decoding the words alone as Artisan and co. did planting them, never mind locating the hidden effects. Nice effort, failed gimmick.
As for Book of Shadows's audio/video presentation, the clean, 1.85:1, 16x9-enhanced transfer is a tiny bit too orange, seasonally fitting or not, and it can look digitally-compressed at times. The 5.1 Dolby Digital audio is tremendous, on the other hand, with brilliant bassy creaks and moans (one advantage to the central location, a decrepit factory) and effectively dizzying directionality (esp. during the homicidal flash-cut transitions). Closing extras: a "live" performance by Godhead (blecch) tied into a label's promo clip, cast-and-crew bios/production notes, DVD-ROM links to outtakes and web-exclusive footage, and a pair of booklets, one containing Berlinger's essay, the other a catalogue for Blair Witch paraphernalia. Who's kidding whom? Originally published: March 12, 2001.