By Chris Vognar / The Dallas Morning News
The age of the simple sequel has come and gone, a casualty of a time in which mere Roman numerals lost their once-inherent sex and box-office appeal. We now need a Scream-like postmodern twist, a few self-referential layers of irony to justify a story's continuation. No need even to use the same characters, especially when they all died the first time around. Today's sequel is mostly about concept.
Actually, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 is all about concept. Building off of the brilliantly marketed faux-documentary smash The Blair Witch Project, this Witch knows that it can't work the same old black magic and emerge with another ridiculous box-office bounty. So Shadows takes a meek stab at playing with the hype generated by the original film, and even starts to poke fun at the folks who turned out in droves to get lost in the woods.
For its first few minutes, Blair Witch 2 feels as if it could have flowed from the sharp pen of Christopher Guest. The burg of Burkittsville, Md., is overrun by movie buffs, hucksters and sundry freaks, eager to express their faith in witchcraft or make a fast buck off the Blair Witch market. The film's funniest scene finds a keen young capitalist addressing the phenomenon as he ties together twigs in the shape of those sinister little stick figures from the first installment. There's marketing gold in those hills, the sequel implies, giving us hope for a wicked satire on delusion and commercialism.
No such luck. Book of Shadows quickly drops the risky strategy of parodying its core audience (a la Woody Allen's Stardust Memories), opting instead to buttress the believers with an old, dark house setting. The dilapidated digs belong to Jeff (Jeffrey Donovan), an opportunistic tour guide who leads four paying customers into those creepy woods for a night of edifying chills and thrills. When a rival tour group is found hacked up nearby, Jeff and his charges, holed up in the creepy loft castle, become prime suspects.
Director Jeff Berlinger, a documentary maker best known for the Emmy-winning Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, tries to turn Book of Shadows into a study of paranoid terror. This time, the Blair Witch seems to have cast a nasty spell on our five aficionados, including a memorably assertive Goth chick (Kim Director) and a pair of bickering graduate students (Tristen Skyler and Stephen Baker Turner). But with most of their time spent hallucinating, worrying and wondering what happened to those few hours in the woods that they can't place, the quintet doesn't get to create a whole lot of tension.
Mr. Berlinger faces a difficult task with Book of Shadows, and he deserves some credit for shifting the Blair Witch focus away from the verite formula (an irony of sorts for a documentary man). But his inexperience with narrative film is apparent in Book's torpid story line, which takes a distant back seat to aesthetics. Though not shot in the manner of a fake documentary, Book turns up the style knob with digital video, computer graphics and other mixed media. The generously budgeted, collage-like visual style can be fun to look at, and it serves as a welcome distraction from the film's uneven story and often tepid brand of self-aware navel-gazing.
Book of Shadows is sure to score on its opening weekend, if only on the strength of the returning faithful. But many could be disappointed in the film's focus (or lack thereof). It doesn't emulate The Blair Witch Project, and it only makes a pass at satire. Instead, it opts for a synergetic third way, relying on name recognition and an archly tenuous connection to the original product. The results should hold your interest, but they're hardly bewitching.