Okay, let’s get this over with.
That might seem like a strange thing to say for the second part of a series I am utterly thrilled about putting together, but only to people who haven’t seen Book of Shadows. I wrote about the Blair Witch sequel earlier this year, a movie directed by Joe Berlinger and starring next to nobody you’ve ever heard of and for good reason, too, and I’m still reeling at just how fucking bad it is.
But this isn’t an article meant to take apart why this film sucks absolute arse: I’ve done that already, anyway. No, I want to measure it up against the original, and try to work out what aspects (if any) it got right, and which it got wrong.
Firstly, let’s talk about the woods. I think the biggest problem with this movie is how much of the mysticism and weirdness it manages to strip from Burkittsville Woods, probably because Joe Berlinger was an incredibly inexperienced director at the time he helmed the movie, lacking the same vision and novelty factor Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez had for the first one. Where the first film has us exhaustedly mapping out circles as the days roll by, Berlinger manages to make his version look like the forest at the back of my house when I was growing up where I used to sneak off to smoke stolen cigarettes as a teenager. It doesn’t have the same sense of inescapable vastness, nor the slow atmospheric build that crests as the central characters go deeper; it always feels as though they could pretty much just stroll out at any time, and that’s a huge problem.
The folklore element, though, is one I think was almost really interesting. Book of Shadows’ main folklore is that of The Blair Witch Project, the movie, in the real world, and it’s a really bold metatextual choice that might have worked under different circumstances and in different hands. Berlinger has always held firm that the version of the movie we saw wasn’t the one he actually wanted to release, with his original plan being more of a focus on mass hysteria presumably tied to this metatextual narrative, and genuinely, I’d love to see what he initially planned for it (even if the movies which he didn’t decry for studio interference are still quite shit). The Blair Witch Project was such a cultural phenomenon that it makes sense to turn it into the same kind of legend the first movie was based on, especially given the faux-reality the film and marketing was based in, but I think found footage as a more widely-recognized cinematic trope was in its infancy to the extent that it just hadn’t had time to fully gestate yet. Turning the first movie of a franchise into the folkloric backdrop for the second is a fascinating idea, but it doesn’t amount to enough to lift the film into something worthwhile (Grave Encounters 2, in my opinion, is a great example of how to do this in an effective way that serves the story, if you’re looking for a good take on the idea).
And, of course, as I wrote about in my first review of Book of Shadows, there is the metatextual narrative here of Joe Berlinger’s involvement with the West Memphis Three (the title is even taken from the supposedly Satanic writing created by one of the accused in that case). My issue with this isn’t Berlinger bringing such a huge and contentious case to a fictional horror film – plenty of filmmakers use their work to explore what’s going on in their personal and professional lives, and there’s nothing wrong with it – but rather, how muddled and confused that narrative comes across. The Blair Witch Project has a reasonably simple but effective meta-narrative about filmmaking and how it can be used to distance oneself from something horrible, but I’m still not entirely sure what this movie is trying to say about Berlinger’s involvement with that particular case. Perhaps this is due to the studio interference getting in the way of Berlinger’s true ideas, maybe it’s because he didn’t articulate them well enough as a writer or director, but either way, it’s a mess.
Truly, Book of Shadows is my Burkittsville Woods, and sometimes, I fear I’ll never find a way out (of how fucking bad it is). This movie is an almost unfathomably bad sequel to a movie as brilliant as The Blair Witch Project, and it fails on almost every level the first succeeds. I think this is the lowest low the franchise reaches (though I haven’t finished playing the games yet, so bear with me), and I am glad to put it behind me.
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(header image via Giphy)
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