People hate change. In psychology, we learn that any change, be it positive or negative, creates stress. There is even a scale listing the most stressful life-changes. The same is true when applied to movies. Audiences donít like it when you mess with a certain formula. A good example is "Halloween III: Season of the Witch". Here we have a perfectly decent little horror film which was shunned by the public simply because Michael Myers wasnít in it. The same thing happened last fall when "Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2" hit theatres. The public, who wanted another shaky-cam crapfest, was not ready to be exposed to a revisionist psychological horror film, and word of mouth closed the "Book of Shadows" almost instantaneously. Artisan Home Entertainment is now opening the "Book" again on DVD, and I believe that itís worth checking out.
"Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2" takes place in our reality, and begins in the autumn of 1999. The first title card reads, "The following is a fictionalized re-enactment of events that occurred after the release of íThe Blair Witch Projectí". (Of course, this is a lie, just as the first film wasnít a "real" documentary.) We are introduced to Jeffrey (Jeffrey Patterson), a native of Burkitsville, Maryland (where "The Blair Witch Project" took place), who has set out to capitalize on the "Blair Witch" hysteria, by opening the "Blair Witch Store" and creating a tour package, which he calls "The Blair Witch Hunt". On his inaugral trip, Jeffrey has four customers; Tristen (Tristine Skyler) and Stephen (Stephen Barker Turner), a young couple who are writing a book on the "Blair Witch" phenomenon; Erica (Erica Leerhsen), a Wiccan witch, who has come to Burkitsville to dispel the myth that all witches are evil; and Kim (Kim Director), a goth-girl who just wanted to see Burkitsville because she thought the movie was cool. (Note that all of the characters have the same names as the actors portraying them, thus lending credence to the "true story" angle.)
Jeffrey leads his group into the woods to see the ruins of the home of Rustin Parr, the child-killer who was mentioned in "The Blair Witch Project". (I seem to remember that there was actually a house in the first film, whereas here there is only a foundation.) The group sets up camp, and Jeffrey (who is a technical wiz) sets up several cameras to record any supernatural action. The team stays up all night drinking and partying, hoping to get a glimpse of the Blair Witch. But, when they wake up in the morning, they find that their world has changed, and that they arenít sure what happened the night before. Without giving away too much of the plot, the group returns to Jeffreyís abode (which is an abandoned factory), to try and sort out what happened in the forest. As the truth is slowly revealed, each member of the group must face their own fears.
Director/co-writer Joe Berlinger made a name for himself making award-winning documentaries, such as "Paradise Lost" and "Revelations: Paradise Lost 2" (If you havenít seen them, see them. Period.) So, he seemed like a good candidate to make the follow-up to a faux-documentary. Of course, Berlinger faced insurmountable odds in creating a sequel to "The Blair Witch Project". The success of that film had nothing to do with the movie (which is one of the worst films ever made), it had to do with the hype and the international interest which surrounded the film. Berlinger (and co-scripter Dick Beebe) wisely decided to focus "Blair Witch 2" on this hysteria which "The Blair Witch Project" created. Instead of sending another group of people out into the woods searching for the Blair Witch, Berlinger opts to send a group of fans in search of a movie. And then, he makes the gutsy decision to pull them out of the woods halfway through the film. In doing so, Berlinger is really pointing his camera back at us, the audience. His film is a thinly veiled treatise on the state of the media in America and the way that we get caught up in things that arenít real.
But, do all of these well-intended statements contain a good horror movie? "Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2" does a fairly good job of delivering its message while delivering some shocks as well. While "The Blair Witch Project" attempted to play on the universal fear of being lost in the woods (hereís a hint: stay out of the woods), Berlinger focuses on things that are actually scary, such as death, loss of self-control, and paranoia. Through clever editing (which Berlinger actually disowns, more on that in a moment) and creepy visuals Berlinger creates a sense of doom which isnít related to a place or an imagined menace, but to the characters themselves. While the plot seems to be borrowing from other films at times (certain parts reminded me of "Prince of Darkness), the film moves along at a nice pace and never dwells on one topic for too long. There are some holes in the plot and the film does end quite abruptly (as with the first film), but otherwise the movie is pretty solid. One thing that "Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2" shares with its predecessor is that for much of the film, the story isnít very important. Whatís important is the mood and atmosphere that the film creates. However, unlike "The Blair Witch Project", "Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2" goes the distance and actually shows you something scary.
Considering the disappointing box-office performance of "Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2", Artisan Home Entertainment has still given the film a nice package for its DVD release. The film is presented in an anamorphic widescreen transfer, letterboxed at 1.85:1. The picture is nearly perfect, as it shows practically no grain or distortion. Itís obvious from the beginning of the movie that this isnít a low-budget "homemade" affair, as with the first film. The image has a depth and clarity that is representative for full production values. The colors are nicely reproduced, which natural fleshtones and very true blacks for those ominous nighttime scenes. There are no noticeable defects from the source print, nor is there any noise or artifacting problems. This is how one should always expect a brand-new studio film to look.
Artisan has also done justice to the filmís soundtrack. Presented in a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, the audio accurately reproduces all of the creepy sound effects integral to the film. Surround sound is put to good use to present these effects and the soundfield is quite impressive. The screen-to-speaker sound effect placement is especially well done and make the scenes in the forest all the more suspenseful. The dialogue is also well integrated, as it is clear and audible. I didnít notice a great deal of subwoofer response, but I was probably too busy listening to the ethereal voices swirling around the room!
The "Book of Shadow" DVD complements this great transfer with a handful of extra features. First up, we have an audio commentary with director Joe Berlinger. Right from the get-go, Berlinger is very open and honest with his feelings about the film. He lets us know that the film that we are watching is not his "directorís cut" and he immediately begins to point out the features that the studio added against his wishes. (One has to wonder why Artisan allowed him to go ahead with this commentary.) Berlinger does a good job of comparing what we are seeing to his original vision. But, all of his comments arenít negative. He has good things to say about his actors, and he seemed to have enjoyed his first experience with making a big-budget feature. Also, Berlinger is very up-front with the message that he was trying to convey with the film. Obviously, he and Artisan butted heads when it came to making a political film vs. a horror film. This is one of the most intriguing commentaries that Iíve heard in a while, due in part to Berlingerís candidness.
We also get a brief commentary from composer Carter Burwell. He talks over three select scenes and describes how the music for these scenes was created. The DVD features extensive cast & crew biographies and filmographies, as well as in-depth production notes. One of the most unique special features to come along in a while is "The Secret of Esrever". This brief segment describes how certain scenes in the film contains secrets which can only be seen when the movie is viewed in reverse. Actually, in order to learn which scenes contain this phenomenon, you have to watch "The Secret of Esrever" in reverse. To be honest, I havenít checked out the particular scenes, but thereís no denying the originality of this concept. Noticeably absent is a theatrical trailer, although one is accessible through a DVD-ROM feature.
"Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2" is being touted as the first DVD+CD hybrid. One side of the disc contains the DVD movie and the special features, while the other side contains CD audio. The CD contains three songs from the filmís soundtrack from Godhead, Tony Iommi (featuring Dave Grohl), and Steaknife, as well as a live track from Godhead. The remaining 13 tracks offer the filmís score from composer Carter Burwell (Is there really a track entitled "Breasts"?) This is a neat marketing ploy, as this may entice some to buy the soundtrack, while others who wouldnít normally purchase a CD simply for the score, can now hear it if they so please.
Considering how much I despised "The Blair Witch Project", I was pleasantly surprised by "Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2". The film is far from perfect, but it takes some chances, and in this age when serious horror films are scarce, it stands out in the crowd. Artisan Home Entertainment has delivered a DVD with a knockout transfer and a commentary that doesnít pull any punches. The odds were stacked against "Book of Shadows" from the beginning, but Iím willing to bet that some of you may end up enjoying it.