If you’re a horror fan, you’ve probably already heard that the film The Woods actually turned out to be a surprise sequel to The Blair Witch Project thanks to an unexpected screening and announcement at San Diego Comic Con. Already the few critics who have seen it are gushing over the revived franchise.
As someone who was working for the Landmark River Oaks Theatre in the absolutely insane two weeks when we were the only cinema in Houston allowed to show the film (Artisan sent us T-shirts saying, “I survived The Blair Witch Project” as thanks), I was borderline obsessed with the film. It didn’t invent the found-footage genre of horror or successful viral marketing via the Internet, but it damn sure perfected it. It also created a very extensive in-universe mythology that was just vague enough to grow via spin-off media but concrete enough to keep the idea of the Blair Witch cohesive.
When its sequel, Book of Shadows, came out in 2000, it was highly anticipated and also widely panned. I was one of the few people I know who loved and still love it, and today we’re going to talk about why it’s a way better movie than it gets credit for.
The main complaint is that the film is a radical departure from the first one stylistically. It’s not a found-footage horror outing, and if Paranormal Activity, Final Destination and Saw have proven anything since the turn of the century, it’s that horror fans like their franchises nice and formulaic. If you wanted the same experience you got with The Blair Witch Project, yeah, you’re going to be disappointed in Book of Shadows.
However, if you can get past that, then you will see a movie that is really quite innovative in ways horror movies rarely are and how franchises almost never are. The Blair Witch Project invited viewers to question whether the action on screen was real, but Book of Shadows actually went out of its way to mess with our perceptions of the film itself.
In Book of Shadows, the movie The Blair Witch Project exists, but it exists within the narrative of the first film’s framing as actual found footage, but it’s coy enough about this that you can’t be absolutely sure that’s the case. So essentially we are watching a horror movie about another horror movie, and no one can tell whether it’s about an inexplicable phenomenon legitimately recorded or about regular movie fans going mad.
Where the movie is truly brilliant is in how it screws with our minds in a terribly subtle way. One of the most famous examples is a series of padlocks on lockers that mysteriously rearrange themselves in the form of a pentagram as a character walks past them, then return to random arrangement seconds later. Names of tombstones change and change back, stuff like that. No one on screen ever notices it, only the audience.
It’s similar to the game Dear Esther, in which things you encounter on the island in the game are randomized. Every play-through of the game will net slightly different results, and it makes you completely question whether you're legitimately seeing something different or just something you missed the first time.
Book of Shadows, being a movie, doesn’t have quite that feel of randomness, but the effect achieved by these incredibly subtle background bits out of the corner of your eye makes the film terribly uneasy to watch. You can’t quite catch it most of the time, but something in the back of your mind knows there is something wrong.
The ending of the film, as with the first, is very ambiguous. We’re left to judge whether the survivors were deranged murderers who killed two women in cold blood, or helpless victims being manipulated by a woman who was either severely disturbed or coldly cruel. Video evidence shows one, but the video evidence we as an audience have been shown up until now shows the other, and it could be that the Blair Witch is real or just that the characters have all lied to themselves hard enough to believe she was real.
Book of Shadows, like its predecessor, is a movie that intentionally makes no sense in the end because the answer to the question “is there something in the woods of Burkittsville?” is only “we don’t know.” I think a lot of the backlash to Book of Shadows came from audiences angry that question wasn’t answered in the sequel, but we simply couldn’t deal with the fact that there is no answer. The Blair Witch is a mystery (despite that freakin’ terrible Todd McFarlane action figure). That’s what made the first film tick.
The second is the same, but in a far more subtle and less gimmicky way. That’s not to say it’s perfect. Kim Director’s “psychic goth girl” act has all the thumbprints of a studio rewrite keen to get that Craft dollar, and what the movie gains in better pacing and storytelling it loses in some predicable jump scares. That said, it’s a far more clever movie than it is ever given credit for, and the upside is that no matter what the new Blair Witch does, Book of Shadows can stand on its own as a meta-commentary on toxic fandom and the potentially harmful influence of media. Unlike the original, it can be enjoyed on multiple levels, and in the end it still scared the crap out of me. Do yourselves a favor and give it another shot. You’ll be glad you did.