The first in an occasional series on UNDERRATED THINGS.
The 2000 sequel to The Blair Witch Project (Book of Shadows) still stands as a lesson in how not to turn your surprise-hit, no-budget found-footage horror into a megabucks franchise: by ditching the format entirely and attempting straight scares. It was, and is, a failure. [p142, Issue 262.]
Now, this is a view (and the most common one I’ve encountered over the past decade, let’s be fair), and I only differ in as much as I think the opposite to pretty much everthing in those two sentences.1
The original Blair Witch Project, which appeared just a year before this sequel, was, let’s be honest, a not especially scary film about three tiresome, not to say incompetent and useless hikers, redeemed, just at the death2, by a memorable “stay-with-you” final scene. By far the most interesting thing about it was the guerilla internet marketing and the way that combined with the (less original) faux-documentary ‘found footage’ set up of the film itself.
In this regard, hiring noted documentarian Joe Berlinger to direct the second film, and having him make a sequel, not to the first film itself, but rather to the effect the film had (both on Burkittsville and audience) and the whole idea of the blurring of fact of fiction in the digital age, and the way that can be manipulated, and the implications for the words “truth” and “documentary” that this entails, seems to me to be an original and splendid move rather than a failure.
Neither does Berlinger disappoint. His intention3 was to make a film that blurred the lines between fact and fiction and meditates on the distiction between fiction and documentary (or “documentary”, if you will). It’s not perfect — as Berlinger notes in his commentary, the studio-demanded gore inserts do make the line between ‘are these kids the perpetrators of an atrocity or the victims of evil?” less blurred than would be ideal (and make planted lines like Jeff’s about how video never lies although film does more (perhaps) of a giveaway than originally intended): although I think the intercutting of the final interrogations throughout the film, rather than having them all together at the end is less harmful than Berlinger thinks.
Partly this is because the cast is uniformly splendid, and partly because there are still enough curveballs (particularly re. the consistency of the filmed portions regarding the editing of the videotapes of the missing hours; the real state of the truck; the appearance of the police files etc. etc.) to ensure the true state of affairs does remain genuinely ambiguous; and partly because this is just a better film than the first Blair Witch.
Let’s start with the “straight scares”. These are much better done, and much more scary in this film than the first one (e.g. the girl on the bridge, the heard sounds from dreams, the extent and nature of what, if anything, is missing from the protagonist’s memories etc.) and (which is always a consideration in horror films) the funny lines of dialogue are genuinely funny. (“Oh my God, who made that?!?!?! Oh, I did earlier!” and the light bulb joke: “How many Heather Donohues does it take to screw in a light bulb? *tearfully bellows* JUST ONE!!! JUST THE ONE OF THEM!!!”)
Too, the final scenes, containing the refrains, as various video (rather than film) footage plays, of “I didn’t do that!!” and Stephen’s stressed, uncontrollable, yet determined (or is it?) cries of, “Somebody fucked with that tape!!!” are just as much ‘keepers’ as the final act of the first film.
So. Not just an UNDERRATED THING, but better than its predecessor, and, indeed, one of the best horror films of the noughties.
1 I’ll certainly give them that Book of Shadows didn’t turn Blair Witch into a “megabucks franchise” though. This is far from the least of the film’s achievements.
2 As it were…
3 One of the many great things about Book of Shadows is that the DVD contains perhaps the most honest and enlightening director’s commentary ever. I’m one of those fellows that if I buy a DVD I inevitably find time to listen to the commentaries, but even I’d be hard pressed to describe them as essential. Two I genuinely think are though, are Berlinger’s on this film, and that on the first Spinal Tap film, which, brilliantly, functions as it’s own sequel…