What does emerge on-screen is far more conceptually ambitious, and while not entirely successful, at least deserves points for creativity. Joe Berlinger, co-director of the Paradise Lost documentaries about three goth-metalhead teens convicted -- probably falsely -- of child murder, has teamed up with screenwriter Dick Beebe (of the wretched House on Haunted Hill remake last year) to give us a sequel that acknowledges its predecessor as fiction. This is the sequel's most innovative twist, but it gets somewhat murky when it becomes clear that the mythology of the witch and her curse is still supposed to be taken at face value, thereby rendering the "evidence" created for the Curse of the Blair Witch TV special (such as footage of the fictitious child-killing hermit Rustin Parr) "real," but the special's references to the film crew "fake." In other words, it's not clear that the premise consistently holds up under geeklike levels of scrutiny. Further muddying the waters is an opening disclaimer calling the film a "fictionalized reenactment" in which "some names have been changed." In fact, none have: Book of Shadows continues the original film's tactic of giving its major characters the same names as the actors who play them.
Following the would-be disclaimer is a series of documentary clips, initially real ones of Roger Ebert and others talking about the first film, followed by created footage of Burkittsville, Md., becoming overrun with annoying fans. These clips include one of an elderly woman who sells the rocks in her back yard to tourists, and laments that she can't peddle them on the Internet as well, because "it costs too much to ship a rock." Gradually, the clips start to center on a stoned-looking doofus named Jeff (Jeffrey Donovan) who sells bags of "official Blair dirt" on eBay, and experiences soul-bonding with tourists over their mutual experience of the first film. Next, in order to emphasize that this is not the original Blair Witch, we cut to a sweeping helicopter shot over the woods, interspliced with brief images of torture and bondage, and scored with a brand-new Marilyn Manson song (curiously, neither this song nor the closing number from Poe appears on the tie-in soundtrack album; Manson, who executive-produced the disc, has instead substituted his own cover of the M*A*S*H theme song "Suicide Is Painless").
The mood thus established, we come back to Jeff, who is now leading a vanload of four tourists on a trek into the woods to see the locations depicted in the first film. There's Stephen (Stephen Barker Turner) and his pregnant girlfriend Tristen (Tristen Skyler), a couple researching a new book on the Blair Witch phenomenon -- he calls it all a mass delusion, while she argues that "perception is reality," thus setting up the theme of the entire film; Erica (Erica Leerhsen), a Wiccan who believes that the Blair Witch has been maligned all these years ("She was an earth child, like me. She's gonna be my mentor"), and likes to light incense, talk to ferns, and chant flaky-sounding mantras like "By earth and fire and water and smoke, Persephone I invoke"; and finally Kim (Kim Director), a prototypical goth chick with minor psychic abilities and impeccably applied makeup that stays impeccable far longer than it ought to. And Jeff has a secret: It's established early on that he spent time in a mental institution (for reasons not discussed on-screen, but enumerated on the Book of Shadows standees now in every multiplex lobby), where custardlike fluids were forcibly funneled into his nostrils.
Anyway, the first stop on the trip is the ruined foundation of Rustin Parr's cabin. Setting up camp for the night, along with a multitude of video cameras just in case anything weird happens, the group proceeds to get drunk and stoned around the campfire, while discussing the first film: Erica wonders why there wasn't any sex, while Stephen tells jokes about Heather Donahue screwing in a light bulb. Meanwhile, Jeff hits on both available ladies by pitching vanity films to them: Wicca: A Way of Life to Erica, and Goth: A Way of Life to Kim.
All of a sudden, it's day. The quintet awaken to what appears to be white confetti raining down upon them, and discover that the cameras are smashed, and Tristen and Stephen's notes are shredded. It transpires that they've all been unconscious, or at least unaware of their own actions, for about five hours. And Tristen is dripping blood; a dream about drowning her fetus seems to have induced an actual miscarriage.
Following a brief stay at the local hospital, Jeff and company return to his home, an abandoned broom factory that he has converted into the coolest goth pad since Brad Pitt's home base in Fight Club. As they proceed to analyze their footage for clues about the five lost hours, creepy stuff starts happening. Various gore-filled hallucinations begin to afflict all concerned. Strange noises are heard outside in the woods. Runic symbols begin appearing on everyone's body. And a rival group of campers who had been encountered earlier are reported to have been brutally murdered. Is it all an intense series of mass delusions? Or has the curse of the Blair Witch struck?
The cue for what follows is taken from David Lynch's Lost Highway, notably the scene from that film in which Bill Pullman expresses his hatred for camcorders because he likes to remember things "the way I remember them; not necessarily the way they happened," shortly before being convicted for a crime that appears to exist only on video. The paradigm of video always telling the truth is brought into question again and again here, as is the nature of reality. Like Heather before him, Jeff insists upon filming the escalating conflicts of distrust at all times, because the camera won't (or at least, shouldn't) lie, and thus will exonerate him.
Spoiler alert! Read no further if you want to avoid all hints of additional plot points! It's impossible not to think back to Paradise Lost while watching, and not just because of Kim's line "People think that because I dress in black I'm some kind of sick killer." Berlinger has admitted that he thought the accused teens were guilty until he actually began making that film; Book of Shadows at times resembles a fictional retelling of the same story, in which the accused are both real occultists and likely killers. And the titular book isn't present anywhere in this film, but it was one of the tomes found in the possession of Damian Echols in Paradise Lost.
To say that Book of Shadows is interesting may be damning with faint praise, but that really is the best word for it. It's different, but not really suspenseful: The narrative jumps backward and forward in time in such a way as to pretty much reveal who's going to live or die. It's not too scary either, although there are moments of creepiness, there's blood and gore, and Erica frequently gets naked (although her character refers to witches as a persecuted minority, it's doubtful she'll do much to help the cause by coming off as such a nymphomaniac ditz). And unlike in Mary Harron's American Psycho, the whole is-the-gore-real-or-not gambit seems like a complete cop-out here, a way to effectively invalidate any kind of chills we may have had about the mysterious woods.
It doesn't help matters that the characters are pursued by a local sheriff resembling the bastard hybrid of Yosemite Sam and the late Brion James ("Yew have been a paaaaiiin in this town's aaassss since yew were tay-un," he sneers to Jeff). None of the leads is even all that sympathetic; only Kim comes off as likable, and that may depend on one's tolerance for spooky goth girls. The film is undeniably unique in today's teen suspense climate, but it also brings to mind the far superior In the Mouth of Madness, a little-seen John Carpenter masterpiece scripted by New Line chief Michael DeLuca. It's not only a better horror head trip; it's also proof that studio chiefs aren't all dummies.