The Blair Witch Project is, if I had to put my finger on it, my favourite film ever.
I’ve written about it enough that I’m not going to spend paragraphs upon paragraphs rhapsodizing about it here, but, in short: there’s something about the found footage rural horror that hits a very primal part of my country-gal brain, and, from the first time I saw it more than a decade ago, I’ve simply never stopped thinking about it. Horror as a genre will always be the tippity-top in terms of cinema as far as I’m concerned, and The Blair Witch Project is a masterfully streamlined and incredibly effective example of horror done undeniably right.
Which makes it doubly-odd that I’ve never seen the sequel. 2000’s Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 was rushed out to release barely fifteen months after the original became an unexpectedly lucrative hit, and since then, it seems like everyone has been doing their best not to think about it. It’s seen, culturally, as a flagrant cash-in with all the artistic and cultural merit that one might expect from such an endeavour, a dreadful, cynical cash-grab that does no justice to the subtle brilliance of the original.
Hence my lack of interest in bothering with it: The Blair Witch Project Original Flavour has always been more than enough for me, and, especially after dragging myself through 2016’s dreadful Blair Witch, I couldn’t see much reason to go back and try to recapture that magic with a sequel so clearly churned out to bring in that sweet, sweet found footage coin. Even after I played the 2019 Blair Witch game, which I actually rather like as an attempt not just to re-jig the original movie’s plot but to explore different aspects of Burkitsville, I still couldn’t muster any interest in Book of Shadows.
Until last week, when I contracted tonsilitis and laryngitis at the same time. Delirious from Throaty Hurty, I knew that anything would be better than suffering in this alone: surely, Book of Shadows could only be an improvement on the way I was feeling, right?
Look, everyone who has told you that Book of Shadows is a bad film has been lying to you: it’s far, far worse than that. Book of Shadows is straight-up one of the worst films ever made, and I do not say that lightly, as a connoisseur of the dreadful movie as art form. I love bad films, especially bad horror, but I spent most of the runtime of this nu-metal wreckage thrashing about on my couch in abject agony, begging whatever higher power who might have been watching over me to save me from this torture. I spent two full days unable to swallow water without crying last week, and this was, without a doubt, worse.
It follows the story of a handful of people from various late-90s subcultures (Wiccan, goth, etc) in a post-Blair Witch Burkitsville as they travel to the woods to try and uncover more about the truth of the Blair Witch. However, they quickly find themselves caught up in what seems to be some kind of satanic ritual, leading to their arrest by small-town cops who use their involvement in these subcultures to help prove their guilt.
It calls itself “metafiction”, but that’s clearly just to cover for the fact that everyone involved doesn’t seem to know how to handle found footage as a stylistic choice at this point, and constantly breaks the rules of the fledgling genre that it barely understands, dotting between re-enactment and actual found footage and regular filmmaking techniques. The dialogue is arse-clenchingly bad, the performances really coming down to meet it in quality, the attempts to invoke goth subculture so clueless they’re almost funny. There isn’t one scare here that doesn’t work objectively better as a piece of comedy than it does of horror. It’s amateurish to an almost insulting degree, so utterly devoid of skill and intelligence or even the most basic understanding of cinematic language that it makes my head spin.
But who, you might ask, could make a movie this fucking terrible? Who could have been handed the reins to something as big as a Blair Witch sequel and managed to prove themselves so inept that they couldn’t create ten non-consecutive coherent minutes within it? Well, that brings me to the next part of this review, my darlings, because the person who created Book of Shadows is none other than Joe Berlinger.
You might remember Mister Berlinger from a review we did of his equally incompetent Ted Bundy movie, but if you’ve heard his name before, it’s most likely via his work as a documentarian. Specifically, his Paradise Lost trilogy, of which he had released two parts by the time Book of Shadows came out, which has undoubtedly become the backbone of his career as a filmmaker, spanning from 1996 to 2011. If you’re not acquainted with the series, it follows the story of the West Memphis Three, a trio of young men accused of and later jailed for the murders of three children in West Memphis in the early 1990s. Key to their controversial conviction was the assertation that they had killed the three children as part of a Satanic ritual, the “evidence” for such provided by their interest in traditionally Gothic subculture stuff like Anton LaVey or even Stephen King.
Essentially, Joe Berlinger made his name covering the real-life case of three young men charged with multiple murders with the basis of Satanism and satanic abuse used to ensure their conviction. And then, he made Book of Shadows, a sequel to the Blair Witch Project in which a group of young people are charged with multiple murders based on their involvement with satanic and supernatural rituals.
And all I can say is…what the fuck? Not that I think filmmakers should not draw on themes they’ve previously explored in their work, but rather, what the fuck is Joe Berlinger trying to say here? The parallels are undeniable, yet do nothing to deepen our understanding of either film. In Book of Shadows, the characters have very much committed the crimes they’re accused of, even if they were under the influence of some mystical force during that time – the Paradise Lost trilogy has always been stringently on the side of the innocence of the accused, framing the concept of the Satanic abuse theory as ridiculous.
The similarities are too significant to miss, too significant to see as a mere coincidence, but what Berlinger is actually trying to tell us with this is beyond me. People who are accused of murders via Satanic rituals are…unfairly maligned? Even when they’ve actually committed those murders? The concept of people committing murders because of supernatural rituals is ridiculous, except in the Blair Witch universe? People should be held accountable for murders even when the devil actually made them do it? Or they shouldn’t? Hello? Hello???
I want there to be some sort of coherent connection between these aspects of Berlinger’s work, but at the same time, how could there ever be one? The Paradise Lost trilogy tells the real story of three young men who Berlinger believes were incorrectly incarcerated for horrific child murder; Blair Witch 2 is a stupid, incompetent, rushed-out sequel to an indie horror hit. Trying to draw parallels between them is almost ghoulishly wrong, but maybe if the movie had something to say about those parallels, it might have at least seemed a coherent choice to draw those lines between them. As it is, those parallels are not just in bad taste, but with no point, either.
Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows is not just a terrible fucking movie. It’s one that, as part of Joe Berlinger’s filmography, feels particularly twisted and unpleasant, an attempt to push a significant real-life narrative (what that narrative is, of course, I have no idea, but answers on a postcard are welcome) against the exceptionally inappropriate backdrop of a Blair Witch film. It’s incompetent on almost every degree possible, a truly embarrassing sequel to such a superb original movie, and trust me when I say: whatever people have told you about this film, it’s far worse than that.
By Lou MacGregor
(header image via NME)