The critics, it must be said, hated this film. The general public at large stayed away from it, and fans of the original Blair Witch Project speak of this “sequel” in bitter, disgusted tones. In fact, more people seem to hate this film than have actually seen it. There’s something in that for all of us.
Book Of Shadows is ostensibly a sequel to the remarkable 1999 ultra-low budget feature The Blair Witch Project, which was shot and edited on home video by Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick. That surprise hit took the form of a gritty, no-frills documentary, based around the supposedly true (but, of course, purely fictional) story of a group of young filmmakers who head into the Black Hills forest near Burkittsville in Maryland to shoot a documentary about the Blair Witch, who has, according to legend, been committing murders in the area since she herself was murdered many years before. Obviously keen to get some b-roll footage in case they end up doing a DVD of their doco, the three filmmakers also employ a camcorder to shoot a “making-of” for their doco. But they are never seen again, and that camcorder footage only hints as to why.
The original movie’s clever structure, excellent acting and nifty promo campaign (which actually fooled many in the US into thinking that they were watching a genuinely true story) made it a massive success, and soon the area in which shooting took place was besieged by tourists, movie fans and those seeking to prove that the story was true - much to the disdain of locals. All of that forms the basis for Book Of Shadows, which enjoys both benefits and curses from the original’s success. On the up side, the budget here is massively larger - this one’s shot on 35mm film, boasts a full-scale Dolby Digital sound mix and the occasional special effect. However, what it doesn’t have is the original directors, cast (well, they’re dead, duh) or structure of the original. Book Of Shadows, you see, is a fictional film about the real aftermath of the release of a fictional film that many though wasn’t, err, fictional.
Plot isn’t a strong point here; essentially, Book Of Shadows revolves around a tour company run by a guy named Jeff (Jeffrey Donovan), who has decided to exploit the myth and legend created by the Blair Witch media frenzy to first sell “souvenirs” over the internet and then to start his own “reality event” known as the “Blair Witch-Hunt”, where he takes fans of the movie to the original location to experience it for themselves. Joining Jeff on his first tour are mousy Tristen (Tristen Skyler) and her boyfriend Stephen (Stephen Barker Turner), committed goth Kim (Kim Director) and modern-day witch (or, more accurately, Wiccan) Erica (Erica Leerhsen), all of whom have their own take on the meaning and impact of the Blair Witch phenomenon. During their first night on the site, though, strange things start to happen, and though they return to the nearby town the next day after their campsite and equipment is mysteriously destroyed, some things clearly aren’t what they should be. Could they have brought something back with them?
First-time feature director (but veteran documentary maker and occasional TV drama director) Joe Berlinger also co-wrote this one, and he’s obviously aware of the reverence with which many hold the original movie. The idea of making a film based on real events in popular culture is not a new one, but in this case it does seem like the only logical way a sequel could have been made without trampling all over the original’s story and faux-realism - and it also has worked well for Wes Craven in the past, so why not? Well, regardless of that, Book Of Shadows was directly compared to the original movie upon its release - when in fact it’s more of a tangential spin-off, even going so far as to ignore many of the original’s plot points and conventions for the sake of convenience. Amusingly, the original’s use of the actors’ real names (done, we presume, to make the improvised acting more convincing) is repeated here, though this film has a conventional script and, unlike its predecessor, doesn’t pretend to be “real”. This is a schlock horror film, gang, very much in the vein of the work of Dean Koontz and Richard Laymon. It can’t be directly compared to the original, simply because it’s a completely different ball game - in fact, it’s very much a stand-alone movie which can be understood even by those who never saw the original Blair Witch. This one plays out like an episode of Tales Of The Unexpected in a car crash with The X-Files and Buffy The Vampire Slayer - in other words, there’s fun to be had here.
More an “inspired-by” than a sequel, Book Of Shadows has a few key things going for it that make it an enjoyable, fun experience. Firstly, Berlinger directs with such flamboyance it seems at times like he’s trying to cram every influence he has into the one scene - and the fact that he often pulls it off is astonishing. Secondly, the cast - most of them relatively inexperienced, but certainly more so than the cast of the original - seem to be having enormous fun with their roles, and play them to the hilt and beyond. And the whole thing’s complemented by an in-your-face sound mix that’s all sub-bass sound effects and energetic alternative rock, very much the antithesis of the original’s incredibly basic soundtrack - but at the same time, very much in tune with the original Blair Witch’s “soundtrack” album, which contained just this sort of stuff, despite the fact that none of it was in the movie itself.
One gets the feeling that everyone’s taking this Blair Witch thing much more seriously than Myrick and Sanchez, who are undoubtedly quite chuffed that their little home movie has become such a global fan phenomenon. Its sequel is pure pulp horror done to a tee, and while the critics, the fans and those who really should get out more often may snarl at the commercialism of it all (hello, what was all that marketing back in 1999, then?), Book Of Shadows is big obnoxious goofy horror fun that, ironically, might have been better received had it not mentioned The Blair Witch Project at all.
What Fox are up to with their rental-only releases is anyone’s guess. While they can issue them with 16:9 enhanced widescreen transfers for films like X-Men, Bootmen or Bedazzled, they also inexplicably come up with full-frame transfers like Ordinary Decent Criminal - or like this one for Book Of Shadows, which we have to suffer while those overseas enjoy an anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer that’s apparently a massive improvement.
While the cinematography here is as flamboyant as the direction, it’s undone by this film-to-video transfer, which is way too dark to provide enough clarity or detail during the many night scenes. The more brightly lit moments, meanwhile, look like a generic transfer of the footage for a TV series, and as a result of that as well as the full-frame format it’s tempting to think you’re watching a TV show at times. Colour saturation is also not as good as it could be. The source print used is perfectly clean and there are no compression problems or nasty artefacts anywhere (the encoding bitrate is quite high) but a modern film should look a lot better than this on digital video.
Of course, most average rental customers for this film probably won’t care if it’s in the right aspect ratio or not - and we’re certain to see a widescreen version when the sell-through version turns up - but with more and more people getting used to seeing films the way they were meant to be seen, this seems like a definite step in the wrong direction.