“This is fucking bullshit!” That is one of the final lines of Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. It may not be the actual last line, but it’s certainly the one that sticks with you the most upon the 2000 film’s ending. It’s said, or rather screamed, by Stephen (Stephen Barker Turner), a would-be academic working on a book about the Blair Witch phenomenon with his wife, Tristen (Tristine Skyler). At least that’s what he was doing when he decided to take a “Blair Witch” tour with amateur obsessive Jeff (Jeffrey Donovan) in a group that included a Wiccan witch, Erica (Erica Leerhsen), and a medium of sorts, Kim Diamond (Kim Director). By the end of their overnight sojourn, two members of that party are dead and that, honestly, is the only confirmable events that I can say actually happen in the movie’s narrative.
The film is replete with cutaway scenes that either explore the past–such as Jeff’s time in a mental hospital–or suggest some pagan-like sacrifice that might have happened decades, even centuries, ago. They could have also happened when Jeff & Co. decided to stay over in the ruins of Rustin Parr’s home. The central mystery of the film seems to be in confirming whether or not the surviving members of Jeff’s tour were possessed by evil spirits and were driven to murder a rival tour group in a rather heinous fashion. Amongst the storylines and timelines that director Joe Berlinger juggles here is interrogation scenes that seem to be happening in the present, with Lanny Flaherty’s Sheriff Cravens grilling Jeff and the other survivors about their role in the mishigas that followed their night on Parr’s land.
It’s important to note that the film exists in a world where The Blair Witch Project has been released and was just as massive a hit as it was here. The denizens of the town of Burkittsville, Maryland, where the original took place and was filmed, are interviewed in the opening moments, expressing their mixed reactions to the onslaught of visitors following the release of the film. Berlinger, co-director of the essential Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, expressed an interest in making a film that would act as a rebuttal to those who believed that Wiccans and Satanists were inherently evil or dangerous. He also shows an interest in playing with the perspective of documentary’s assumed honesty and fiction’s presumed mythologies.
There are remnants of those fascinations, especially towards the beginning and end, but for the most part, Book of Shadows is convoluted in the extreme, repetitive, and nonsensical to the utmost, which, in some cases, is complicated. Most of the film’s core story takes place in an abandoned factory where Jeff has made a pretty decent home, with perfect running electricity, guard dogs, and a shaky bridge that inevitably comes into play. So many scenes involve Jeff looking at a tape with one of his cohorts, seeing some random blink-and-you’ll-miss-it image, rewinding to find the image, and then talking vaguely about how fucked up it all is. There’s also a scene where one of the members of the group takes a bite out of an owl’s corpse. So, yeah.
Berlinger also includes a long miscarriage sequence that, in the final cut, feels severely out of place and only seems to work to give a logical reason for why Tristen starts losing her grip on reality. It’s impossible to tell if Berlinger’s film would have worked before Artisan, the studio who put out the original, decided to reshoot a sizable portion of it to make it more akin to a traditional horror tale. It was the Artisan reshoots that added an inexplicable framing device of sorts involving Jeff’s history in a torture-prone mental hospital. Even with this nonsense, one can see interesting ideas about possession, filmmaking, and belief littered throughout, but the narrative is overworked to the point that no concept or storyline really gains much momentum. Even if the director is at least partially to blame for all this mess, the very fact that Artisan decided to swap out Frank Sinatra’s “Witchcraft” for Marilyn Manson’s lukewarm “Disposable Teens” in the opening credits speaks to a craven, calculated, and blithely opportunistic opinion of what they thought the film needed to be to make money.
And here’s the really sad part: it did make money. Though not nearly the hit that the original was, and a reputation not unlike that of The Room and Troll 2, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 was made for about $15 million and made $26 million all told. Even with marketing costs, the film made some change. Still, while you’re in the movie, the frustration and confusion is oppressive and consistent, and in a way, that’s about as good as Berlinger could have hoped for in all of this. The final scene of the film involves Stephen looking at a climactic act on tape and refusing to believe that it’s what happened. One can imagine that Berlinger had a similar feeling when he was talking with Artisan and looking at their changes to a film that he clearly had personal feelings about. By the end of Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, the idea of simply yelling “This is fucking bullshit” makes a lot of sense, but one has to imagine a much longer, curse-laden tirade came from the man who is labeled as creating it.