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The Blair Witch Project was the biggest movie phenomenon of 1999. You all heard the opinions about it. It was terrifying and scary as hell. As its popularity grew, the parodies came in droves. Everyone became familiar with the aesthetic of the Blair Witch Project. The story behind the filmmakers also became known. It was the typical independent filmmaker's fairy tale full of dead end day jobs, maxed out credit cards and money borrowed from parents. Everyone marveled at this unlikely movie that had put a different spin on the horror genre.

However, in the midst of all the hype, no one seemed to recognize the appropriateness of The Blair Witch Project. The real innovation of this movie was that it shouldn't have been made any other way. Even if this script had somehow come across the desk of a Spielberg or a Coppola, it would have been a strong choice to make it the way it was. Put three unknown actors out in the woods to shoot a documentary. The Blair Witch Project worked because of what it didn't show you, not because of what it did show you. Viewers identified with the common experiences of being lost, hungry and home sick. Each viewer projected their own fears onto the unknown thing tormenting the three filmmakers. Screams from off in the distance signified unspeakable torture that awaited them. All of this effective minimalist style was perhaps based on a small budget shared by some kids trying to make a go of it in the film business. It was a perfect confluence of circumstance that made the film sensational.

So, how could they follow it? Could the people behind this film repeat the innovation of the first one? How would Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows measure up?

The film starts out showing the excitement around the first film. It recognizes it in the parallel world where the found footage is from real people. The film even goes so far as to use the first names of the actors as the first names of their characters as in the original. This starts off the current events theme of the piece with several references made to selling souvenirs on the web and getting film equipment on ebay. The film resists the temptation to be as self-effacing as the scream trilogy. It's self aware without indulging it with easy laughs.

The story starts off with Jeff (whose initial presence in an insane asylum is annoyingly insignificant). He is on his maiden Blair Witch tour. He is bringing along a couple, Tristen and Steven, writing a book about the phenomenon, as well as a wiccan, Erica, and the token goth chick, Kim, who just thought that the movie was cool. Kim reveals psychic intuition out of nowhere. She senses that Tristen is 6 weeks pregnant, as well as her feelings on the matter. Their excursion starts with a night of drinking and debauchery on the site where the tapes that made up the first film were uncovered. Another group who had the same idea and interrupted them, the closest the film comes to a self-mocking gag.

The sequence that follows shows all of the participants getting drunk and waxing on about certain subjects as conversations (particularly in independent films) like that often do. The couple puts forth the most important topic. Tristen tells Steven that that truth is based on perception. It's delivered in the way you would expect from some stoned 20 somethings out in the woods. However, it becomes the running theme for the rest of the movie.
After blacking out, the tourists wake up to Steven and Tristen's research papers raining down on them in pieces. The tapes are missing and the film equipment is either gone or broken. Kim's random psychic powers arise once again and lead to the hidden tapes. The rest of the film sets about the task of figuring out what happened after they blacked out.

The line between fantasy and reality is blurred as they head to Jeff's house (conveniently located within Blair Witch territory). From here on, it gets flat out confusing. The events that follow are jumbled. The group continues going over the tapes from the night before and discovers that some strange things are afoot. The rival tourist group has turned up dead and disemboweled over at coffin rock. Throw in a redneck sheriff with disdain for Jeff and you've got yourself a little investigation.

Film is used as a recording for the events. None of it can be trusted, though. Tapes show characters doing things that they don't remember doing. They also show events' circumstances reversing themselves when viewed on tape. It's interesting that the camera's evidence turned out to be the downfall of these people. However, questioning the infallibility of film evidence undermines the premise of the first flick (and this one) and it makes for a confusing experience.

Perhaps the intention of this movie was to make the viewer question all the things that were going on, to feel the confusion of the protagonists. Unfortunately, it alienates the audience. Recently, films such as The Matrix, Fight Club and The Sixth Sense have handled perception much better. In these cases, perception strengthened the plot rather than relying on it. These films never forgot their story. Here is a horror movie dealing with the question of perception but it is neither scary nor thought provoking.

The ending of the first one was a perfectly understated and eerie. It was appropriate that it was up in the air, however the end of this one leaves you flat and unsatisfied. It showed the horrifying events explicitly, deviating from the spirit of the original. It didn't build on the strengths of The Blair Witch Project, it tried to expand the myth with little effect. It's unfair to compare this movie with the original. However, standing on its own, Book of Shadows doesn't stand out as anything except another horror flick.

--Robert Penty

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