Like it or loathe it, The Blair Witch Project was a cultural phenomenon. Cooked up by five Orlando lads later known to the world as Haxan Films, the $30,000 verité shocker made Florida-filmmaker history by securing a big-bucks distribution deal at Sundance, then conquered the world with box-office returns that made it the most profitable film ever.
Reactions to Haxan's campfire tale ranged from queasiness (thanks to the jagged shooting style) to disappointment that the actual product, in many eyes, didn't live up to its hype. But few denied the genius of its Internet-based marketing campaign, which hewed to the gag that the film was made up of actual footage shot by Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams before their disappearance in the woods of Burkittsville, Md.
Perhaps wisely, the Haxans -- including co-directors Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick -- passed on the inevitable sequel, preferring to shepherd a "prequel" that's planned as the third entry in the series. But Artisan Entertainment has rushed the second installment into theaters a mere 15 months after the original's national bow, hoping to capitalize on its lingering buzz and reap Halloween profits. At the helm is Joe Berlinger, the award-winning documentarian responsible for 1992's "Brother's Keeper" and 1996's "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills." (Berlinger's connection to Florida film runs deeper than his current assignment: He has been a juror and guest speaker at the annual Florida Film Festival, and "Paradise Lost" was screened at the FFF three years before "The Blair Witch Project's" 1999 premiere.)
The good news: "Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2" is front-loaded with funny, winking references to the media juggernaut that attended the first film. Interviews with annoyed Marylanders acknowledge the bad blood that was stirred up when fans raided the real Burkittsville and the nearby Black Hills. Apoplectic Sheriff Cravens (Lanny Flaherty) blows a gasket as he watches hikers and backpackers tromp through the area. "There is no goddamn Blair Witch," he bellows.
The bad news: "Book of Shadows" quickly devolves into standard-issue slasher fare, spiced up with nudity, gore, references to the occult and a guitar-metal soundtrack. There's nary a sympathetic character among this new bunch of, yes, whiny college-age kids. And the pretentious chatter about the difference between real life and documentary -- "Perception is reality," someone actually intones -- was passé a decade ago. This puffed-up project begins to deflate after about 10 minutes.
The sex, lies and obsessive videotaping begin inside a van. Former mental patient Jeff (Jeffrey Donovan) takes a quartet of paying oddballs on a camping trip to the locales seen in the first film. Erica (Erica Leerhsen), a vivacious redhead and preacher's kid, calls herself a practicing Wiccan. Goth girl Kim (Kim Director) is gifted with a psychic bond to those evil goings-on of long ago. And Stephen (Stephen Barker Turner) and his pregnant, emotionally troubled girlfriend, Tristen (Tristen Skyler), are gathering material for a book that will clear up the mystery of the Blair Witch.
In another comedic touch, a competing tour group crosses paths with Jeff's. But the latter lay claim to a night at Coffin Rock, where they proceed to get drunk and high and share bits of Blair Witch lore. After a series of strange occurrences, the action shifts to the cavernous warehouse Jeff calls home. Largely psychological terror ensues when the inadvertent housemates examine videotape shot during their camping trip and are assaulted by every manner of dark vision and/or hallucination. The body count increases as Berlinger hurries toward a hasty "explanation" of the mayhem we've witnessed. It's a thoroughly unsatisfying conclusion to a horror dud that may well wreck the franchise.