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Artisan Home Entertainment presents
"Karma's a bitch."
DVD ReviewThe original The Blair Witch Project was made on a shoestring budget, cleverly marketed and greeted with critical acclaim and box-office success in 1999. The fall of 2000 brought Artisan's inevitable sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. Director/co-writer Joe Berlinger, better known as a documentary filmmaker, opted for an unconventional approach, making a film about the cultural impact of the first movie rather than a direct sequel. In Book of Shadows, an opportunistic "Blair Witch Hunt" tour guide named Jeffrey Patterson (Jeffrey Donovan) leads a small group into the woods, consisting of Goth chick Kim Diamond (Kim Director), honest Wyccan Erica Garson (Erica Leerhsen), and writing/living team Tristen Ryler and Stephen Ryan Parker (Tristine Skyler and Stephen Barker Turner).
The film opens with a very funny mockumentary segment, based on the reactions of the real-life citizens of Burkittsville, the small town used as a location for the first film and regularly invaded by Blair Witch fans and souvenir seekers since its release. The tour group makes its way to the foundation of the Blair Witch house, shoots some video footage and parties down after dark. They wake up in the middle of the night to find their notes destroyed, their cameras missing, and their tapes concealed. After they successfully leave the woods, fiction and reality blur, and its members begin to turn on each other after the group is implicated in the brutal murder of another tour group at Coffin Rock.
Book of Shadows uses some handheld footage in the form of digital video material shot by the main characters, but the film's "reality" is depicted in standard 35mm, with solid lighting and cinematography that give Blair Witch 2 a more conventional look. The script's central conceit is based on questions of reality, in particular whether video footage is inherently more truthful than film, and the visual choices reinforce this idea nicely. The requisite references to the Blair Witch mythos include appearances by child-murderer Justin Parr and persecuted "witch" Elly Kedward, though the story as a whole treats the Blair Witch universe as a fictional creation, an obsession that may or may not be influencing the behavior of its characters in unhealthy ways. It's an intelligent and innovative approach to the subject, adding a self-referential layer that goes far beyond the fantasy of Wes Craven's New Nightmare, and the first act is written with a nice sense of humor to boot (including a Firesign Theatre reference!)
Unfortunately, the original and thought-provoking setup eventually becomes obscured by the standard-issue "scary" elements that dominate the flick. A cast of relative unknowns does a nice job of establishing their similarly-named, "typed" characters, though the Romero-esque social dynamics don't always play well onscreen; there are times when discussions feel pointless or a line delivery doesn't quite fit the energy of the scene. And some cheap-looking gory sequences added at the last minute are obviously tacked-on, inconsistent with the film's psychological underpinnings and far below Savini standards. There are some strikingly gorgeous visual moments involving owls, horrifying delusions, and Elly Kedward's unsettling phantom, but some don't quite work out as planned. Three barking dogs meant to evoke memories of The Omen aren't the right breed, and an overdubbed warning by Kedward's ghost is too overt, sidestepping the complexities of the script, though the climax is still left open to interpretation.
In the end, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 tries to be an intelligent comment on Blair Witch hysteria as well as a commercial horror film, and the two goals clash with each other in irreconcilable ways. Fans of the horror genre may find its ambiguities maddening, while those intrigued by the fresh concept may be disappointed by the more conventional trappings. But it's certainly watchable, and deserves another look if you passed it by during its theatrical run.
Rating for Style: C+
Rating for Substance: B-
Image Transfer Review: Book of Shadows is presented in its original 1.85:1 widescreen theatrical aspect ratio, with a stable, sharp-looking anamorphic transfer. Detail is crisp, color is rich, and shadow detail is just excellent, a critical factor in this generally dark production. Nothing less should be expected of such a recent release, but Artisan's transfer is still very impressive.
Image Transfer Grade: A
Audio Transfer Review: Artisan presents Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 in English Dolby Digital 5.1, French 2.0 Surround and Spanish 2.0 Surround. The 5.1 track is very nice, with active, well-imaged surrounds providing a subtle sense of foreboding throughout, and the hybrid Carter Burwell/hard rock soundtrack benefits from comprehensive frequency range, a broad soundstage and firm LFE bass. The more limited 2.0 tracks still make good use of the rear surround channel, though the dubbing in both cases sounds artificial and less than fully committed to the action. No complaints here; the digital theatrical audio survives the transition to DVD with flying colors.
Audio Transfer Grade: A
Disc ExtrasAnimated menu with music
Scene Access with 25 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Cast and Crew Filmographies
1 Feature/Episode commentary by director Joe Berlinger
DVD+CD—Complete Music Score and Bonus Tracks
An interesting technical innovation provides Carter Burwell's evocative, semi-industrial score in standard audio CD format on the flipside of the DVD (though usage in car audio systems is discouraged for some reason). It's a nice feature, and also includes soundtrack selections by Godhead, Tony Iommi and Steaknife, with an additional live performance of The Reckoning by Godhead.
Substantial on-screen text pages discussing the film's context and approach.
Director/co-screenwriter Joe Berlinger discusses the genesis and execution of the project, providing considerable insight into his concept and intent that aids in appreciation of the film (as well as explaining that certain cheesy gore scenes were added at the last minute!) Berlinger also makes note of a few flubs, in-jokes and references to other horror movies that might otherwise go unnoticed, as well as brief comments on lighting and special effects. It's an honest and listenable track.
Berlinger provides a lengthy "Director's Statement" in the printed booklet, though it covers much the same territory as his commentary; there's also a small sidebar on the film's score.
Carter Burwell's Select Scene Breakdown Commentary:
Composer Carter Burwell discusses his approach to three selected scenes from the film over selections from his evocative score, going into heavy detail about specific cues, sounds and the effects he was trying to achieve. Brief, but very insightful; unfortunately, his third set of comments is cut off prematurely at the end.
Cast & Crew:
The standard bio/filmography material, covering the five main cast members, director Joe Berlinger, co-screenwriter Richard Beebe, executive producers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez (creators of The Blair Witch Project) and the production designer, John Waters regular Vincent Peranio.
The Secret of Esrever:
A puzzle providing hints for locating hidden images in the main attraction, though its interactivity is heavily limited by its backward compatibility (no pun intended) with the VHS release.
Unfortunately, some of the disc's most promising features are available only in PC-compatible DVD-ROM format, so I was unable to test them out. The listed DVD-ROM features include a Shooting Script Simul-View feature, a never-before-seen Theatrical Trailer, Bonus Scenes, "and many more extras." It would have been nice to see the video features available in a more accessible format.
Extras Grade: B-
Final CommentsBook of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 deserves a second look after its disastrous theatrical run; while it doesn't completely work as a horror film, its self-referential take on the Blair Witch phenomenon makes it much more interesting than most such sequels. Artisan's feature-laden DVD sports an excellent transfer, and the pioneering CD soundtrack included on the flipside is a great addition to the package. Check this one out sometime.
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