Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000)
Studio Line: Artisan Entertainment

After spending a night in the Black Hills of Burkittsville, Maryland, four young fans of the original Blair Witch movie descend into a nightmare realm of murder, madness and perception-bending supernatural horror in this eagerly anticipated sequel to the most successful independent film of all time.

Director: Joe Berlinger
Cast: Kim Director, Jeffrey Donovan, Erica Leerhsen, Tristen Skylar, Stephen Barker Turner
Box Office: Budget: $15 million. Opening Weekend: $13.223 million (3317 screens). Gross: $26.421 million.
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9; audio English Dolby Digital 5.1, Spanish & French Dolby Surround 2.0; subtitles none; closed-captioned; double sided - single layered; 25 chapters; rated R; 90 min.; $26.98; street date 3/13/01.
Supplements: Compact Disc Soundtrack; Audio Commentary from Director Joe Berlinger; “The Secret Of Esrever”; Select Scenes Commentary with Composer Carter Burwell; Live Performance by the Band godhead; Cast and Crew Information; Production Notes; DVD-ROM Features.
Purchase: DVD | Music soundtrack - Various Artists | Score soundtrack - Carter Burwell

Picture/Sound/Extras: A-/A-/B+

When it came time to make a sequel to 1999’s enormous hit The Blair Witch Project, the filmmakers were confronted with something of a “lose-lose” proposition artistically. On one hand, it seemed virtually impossible for them to create a new movie that followed the same pattern as the first. That faux-documentary style worked once but if they tried it again, the result would surely seem cynical and derivative.

On the other hand, if they created a more traditional horror film, the results would also be criticized for a lack of inventiveness. The trick was to attempt to straddle the two forms and offer something that worked within the context of the first movie but didn’t seem like a cheap copy.

That’s exactly what director Joe Berlinger did with Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 and you know what? It still was panned by most critics, and it flopped at the box office. It probably didn’t help that BWP backlash had set in long before BW2 hit movie screens in October 2000. With that flick’s enormous financial success came an audience who didn’t understand all of the praise it had garnered. They expected “X” and got “Y” instead.

As a result, many slammed the film and thought it was dreadful. It’s not. For what it is and what it attempts to do, I think BWP is actually very well-executed and compelling. However, droves drove to the multiplex in search of something that would give them classic horror film scares, and the slow-moving, psychological terror of BWP didn’t fit the bill.

Despite the first movie’s strong box office take of $140 million, I always questioned just how much of an audience there would be for a sequel. So many of those who saw BWP seemed to dislike it that I wondered if much interested in a new flick existed.

Apparently my cautious attitude was correct, for BW2 certainly tanked at the box office. It took in only $26 million - a greater than 80% drop from the take of BWP - and was quickly dismissed from public view. Of the few who saw it, I have no idea how many loved the first film or how many didn’t know much about BWP, but just about no one seemed to like BW2.

While it certainly isn’t a very good movie, I think BW2 has gotten an excessively bad rap. The movie contained a number of interesting ideas and situations, and while it didn’t explore them fully or make the best use of them, I still found it to offer a moderately compelling story.

Actually, BW2 may be a case of “what might have been”. From the start, the film existed as a piece of motion picture product. Its release date was established before a director or a script existed, as the studio clearly wanted to strike while the BWP iron was hot; they wanted to rush out a sequel as quickly as humanly possible, which meant that BW2 would hit screens in October 2000, a mere 15 months after the release of the first film.

That’s not a record for sequel speed, but it is awfully fast for a project that didn’t exist in any form until months after the opening of the original picture. Usually when sequels hit multiplexes that quickly, they’re planned in advance. For example, Back to the Future 3 was on screens a mere six months after BTTF 2, but both were shot back-to-back and were meant to come out that way.

This definitely wasn’t the case for BW2, which existed as a totally separate project. It also differed in that everyone had to start truly from scratch. Virtually no one who worked on BWP carried over to the sequel. As its director, the studio chose documentarian Joe Berlinger, who logically would continue the rough-hewn style of the first movie. However, that wasn’t the path he wanted to take, and apparently that’s where the problems began.

If you screen the Berlinger’s audio commentary for this movie, you’ll learn just how much the final result differs from his intentions. While the track was informative and compelling, it also was depressing, for it sounds like studio interference messed up what might have been a really interesting film. I was interested to note that many of the aspects of BW2 I didn’t like - including some graphic violence - weren’t part of his original design, and he added them under pressure. Other incongruous elements also came with the studio package; had Berlinger gotten his way, they wouldn’t have been there.

Would that have made BW2 a great film? Maybe not. I still saw flaws in the director’s thoughts, including the theory behind his entire design. In BW2, Berlinger wanted to look at the way media hype and hysteria affect people and their actions. As such, we’re supposed to look at our five main characters as being potentially delusional due to their excessive immersion in pop culture, specifically in regard to BWP and other horror films.

The problem with this aspect of the movie is that it never seemed clear that any of the five participants really was all that fascinated by BWP or any of the other requisite flicks. BW2 is interesting because it clearly lives in a world in which BWP was just a movie, and it looks at the phenomenon of its success. Our five “heroes” go on a “Blair Witch Tour” in Maryland, so it’s clear that they have some interest in the movie.

However, for Berlinger’s point to make sense, they should all be BWP fanatics, and that’s just not the case. Two of them are their strictly to research the phenomenon, while another goes along mostly as a lark; she liked the movie but didn’t really buy into much of it. A fourth does it as some sort of strange attempt to defend Wiccans from the bad rap the film gave them, while the fifth is the semi-sleazy tour guide; he leads the group just to make a buck.

None of them seem like they’re obsessively wrapped up in the world of BWP or other horror flicks. In fact, none of them appear all that interested in the whole thing, which may just be due to some weak acting. Actually, the performers in BW2 aren’t all that bad; some reviews have made their work out to be much worse than it is. Nonetheless, they do seem fairly amateurish for the most part, so some subtleties of the script may have gotten lost due to their lack of skill.

In any case, even had Berlinger made exactly the film he desired, BW2 still probably would have been somewhat muddled. Nonetheless, I wish we could have seen something truer to his idea, and also it would have been nice to get a product that wasn’t so obscenely rushed.

Frankly, it’s amazing the movie’s as good as it is considering the time restraints and the money-related origins of the project. Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 started life for the most cynical of reasons, and it easily could have been a total disaster. As it stands, the result is clearly flawed and inconsistent, but it contains some interesting concepts and has some good moments. The ultimate product could have been a lot better, but I still found it to offer a fairly watchable experience.

The DVD:

Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this double-sided, single-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. As a whole, the movie looked terrific, with very few negatives on display.

Sharpness seemed quite crisp and well-defined throughout the film. At no time did I see anything that appeared soft or hazy, as the picture seemed very distinct and detailed. Moiré effects and jagged edges presented no concerns, and almost no print flaws could be seen. I detected a speckle or two, but that was it; otherwise the image looked clean and fresh.

Colors appeared nicely naturalistic and accurate. Skin tones looked well-rendered, and though the film maintained a pretty muted palette, the hues seemed clear and solid. Even some more difficult to reproduce colors worked nicely, such as during scenes lit by a campfire. Black levels seemed very deep and rich, and shadow detail was quite positive; the film’s many low-light sequences appeared appropriately dark but never excessively opaque.

Frankly, only the many videotaped parts of BW2 kept it from straight-“A” territory. These snippets seemed well-reproduced, but they still looked like the crummy video footage they were. I can’t fault the DVD transfer for the semi-ugliness of those scenes, as they were accurately replicated, but I simply didn’t feel comfortable giving an image a full “A” when so much of it doesn’t look very good. Nonetheless, the non-video parts of Blair Witch 2 seemed very clear and sharp, and as a whole, the movie provided a very satisfying visual experience.

Also very good was the film’s Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. Although there isn’t much actual action in the movie, this mix offered a very active soundfield. All five channels were utilized throughout most of the movie, largely due to the flick’s music. BW2 featured a combination of rock tunes like Marilyn Manson’s “Disposable Teens” - which ran over the opening credits - and a percussive score from Carter Burwell. The latter used the five discrete channels especially well, and thumping came from all around during many scenes. The music offered a nicely involving aspect of the mix.

In addition, the track boasted some good use of ambient effects. These weren’t always as cleanly-localized as the music, but they helped create a very solid atmosphere that added to the film’s creepiness. Actually, at times it felt as though the filmmakers expected the audio to do the work for them; the movie itself wasn’t terribly thrilling, and the soundtrack seemed to attempt to create excitement on its own. It doesn’t quite make it there, but I thought this was a solidly engrossing soundfield nonetheless.

Audio quality also seemed positive. Dialogue consistently sounded natural and distinct, with no signs of edginess or problems related to intelligibility. Effects were very loud and bold, and they provided a solid punch when appropriate. In quieter moments, they still seemed clean and realistic and they showed no indications of distortion. Music appeared dynamic and crisp, as both the score and the various tunes sounded quite well-reproduced. The score displayed greater depth, but both were still very solid. Ultimately, Blair Witch 2 provided an extremely good audio track.

Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 includes a few supplements. One of them is quite unusual. On the flipside of this double-sided DVD you’ll find a compact disc soundtrack of the film’s music! Note that this album seems to feature all of the music found on the movie’s official “score” CD, but it does not duplicate the songs heard on the “soundtrack”. While the former included just Carter Burwell’s score, the latter provided a mix of rock tunes, some of which do appear on the DVD-CD; we get “Tommy (Don’t Die)” from Steaknife, “Goodbye Lament” from Tony Iommi (Featuring Dave Grohl), and both a studio and a live version of godhead’s “The Reckoning”. The “soundtrack” had those three songs plus an additional 12 tracks. In any case, I thought this was a pretty cool addition.

One other unique extra found on BW2 is called “The Secret of Esrever”. If you click on this option, you’re shown an instructional video that tells you how to make use of it. Essentially some spooky imagery has been hidden in the body of the movie, and this area provides you some clues to find the shots. Armed with those hints, you’re then supposed to watch the film and find them.

Maybe I’m just a loser, but I had a lot of trouble discovering the appropriate spooky images. I got two of the five during my viewing of the film, but frankly, this feature was a distraction; it was hard to pay attention to the movie as I constantly hunted for eerie stuff. “Constantly” may be an exaggeration, but the clues are so vague that they don’t help narrow down the possibilities a whole lot. “The Secret of Esrever” is a clever idea, but it doesn’t seem to add much to the experience; if anything, it may take away from the film.

Note that “The Secret of Esrever” seems to relate to a slew of Easter Eggs found on the DVD. Throughout the disc, you’ll see little Blair Witch symbols; you can click on these for additional information. I suppose all of this may add up to something momentous, but I lacked the patience to weed through all of this stuff. Others may find it fun, though.

In addition to these two unusual extras, we find some more standard fare. First up is a running audio commentary from director Joe Berlinger. This scene-specific affair is much more honest and direct than most of these pieces, as Berlinger makes no attempt to hide his dissatisfaction with the final film. As I noted during my discussion of the movie itself, BW2 was completed under tremendous time constraints, and the studio forced Berlinger to make a number of changes in the flick. He discusses these in detail and provides a solid discussion of what he had originally wanted to do with the piece. Berlinger also adds some good technical details in this very thoughtful and compelling track.

Another mini-commentary appears as well. Here composer Carter Burwell talks about his music during three different scenes. These snippets last for between 100 seconds and seven minutes, 50 seconds for a total of 14 minutes and 15 seconds of commentary. Actually, Burwell’s remarks fill less time than that, as some of the clips offer the music instead. In any case, he talks about the styles he used and provided some good information about his choices.

In the “Cast and Crew” area, we find listings for five actors and 10 crew members. Although a few biographical tidbits appear, these entries essentially just provide annotated filmographies. More informative are the “Production Notes”. Artisan consistently produce solid texts on their DVDs, and these are no exception. We learn a lot of compelling details about the film through this information. Some of it repeated facts heard in the commentary, but the text still added some good statements.

Inside the DVD’s booklet we discover a very informative and compelling “Director’s Statement” written by Berlinger. Here he explains what he wanted to do with the film and covers his motivations. It reinforces what he says in the commentary and it provides a useful read.

In addition to the Blair Witch symbols strewn about the DVD, there’s another semi-Easter Egg, though I don’t know if it qualifies as such since it’s listed on the back cover. If you click on the “Priority Records” symbol on the “Audio Features” menu, you’ll get a brief ad for the soundtrack. That’s followed by a live video for godhead’s “The Reckoning”.

According to the DVD, viewers with DVD-ROM capabilities can “View the shooting script and the film simultaneously” and see “never-before-seen theatrical trailer, bonus scenes, and many more extras!” However, these features are not actually included on the DVD; when you click “Discover More” all you find is a link to the Artisan home page. Another website states that these materials will be available via that location when the DVD hits stores on March 13, 2001. However, there’s nothing here to indicate that; the packaging clearly makes it sound as though the DVD-ROM extras appear on the disc itself, and I found no mention of this eventual addition on the site itself.

If all of the material actually will pop up on the website, this package really should have made that more clear. As it stands, I spent time trying to find the allegedly-included extras without any success. This seems like an odd decision that will only serve to frustrate viewers.

That’s a shame, for Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 really is a fairly nice DVD. The movie itself is erratic and only fitfully interesting, but it shows promise and is a watchable entry in the horror genre. The DVD provides excellent picture and sound plus a few good extras. These include a solid audio commentary and couple of innovative bits like a compact disc soundtrack and a clue-hunting game. Some of these aspects were handled a little clumsily, but as a whole I liked the DVD. Blair Witch 2 won’t ever be considered a classic, but I think it at least merits a rental.

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