Saturday, October 08, 2016

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Space Stars Episode #9 (November 7, 1981)


Hanna Barbera’s Space Stars (1981) episode #9 commences with the story called “Devilship.”

Here, Space Ghost’s young friend Jace discovers a space-dragster and starts to fly it.  Unfortunately, some force on the ship makes him turn evil, and he immediately sets out to steal the gold ore harvested on the twin moons of Bellerophon.




Space Ghost attempts to stop him, but when he boards the space dragster, he also grows avaricious and greedy…at least until Blip splashes him with cold water.

Space Ghost soon realizes that the criminal known as the Wizard is behind this plan to steal gold, described in the episode as the most valuable ore in the universe.

The Teen Force story in this episode is “The Space Slime,” and it sees Uglor again attempting to conquer the Free Worlds, this time with a deadly space slime that ages anyone it comes in contact with “50 years in a few seconds.”


Electra is super-aged in this fashion, but Uglor owns a rejuvenator ray to help reverse its effects.  Unfortunately, the space slime soon evolves, and grows out of control, leaving the Teen Force no choice but to set the ship’s course for a nearby star.
 
This story is riddled with risible dialogue, including the line “Call off your slime!”  And once more, it’s a veritable rerun, with the narrative concerning Uglor’s (thwarted) attempt to take over the Free Worlds.


The Herculoids story of the week is “Return of the Ancients.” It is an update of the Tarzan “lost city” formula in some ways. Here, aliens who lived on Quasar five hundred years ago return to the planet only to find their former metropolis in ruins, abandoned. 

They kidnap Doro to learn what has happened, while his parents attempt a rescue.  The aliens learn that their ancestors were killed by a poisonous flower, and Tara uses that very flower to send them scurrying back to the stars.

The second half of the hour commences with “The Deadly Comet,” wherein a comet, under remote control, is destroying space vessels in a shipping lane. Space Ghost and his friends come to the rescue and find that the comet is controlled by a villain called the Commander.


The worst story of the week -- again -- belongs to Space Ace and the Space Mutts.  

In “Jewlie Newstar” (Julie Newmar?) a jewel thief, Jewlie, steals the Jupiter diamond from her diamond ship.  

The story is typically lame, and Space Ace is such an irritating, whiny character. He’s always complaining with some variation of “why me?” In this episode alone, he asks “when will I ever learn” “and what else can go wrong?” 


The final story in episode nine, “The Outworlders” features Space Ghost and the Teen Force, and probably qualifies as the most interesting story, though that is slight praise considering the other offerings.  

Here, an “Outworlder” -- an insectoid -- gets aboard a starship and begins converting the solid matter into energy so as to feed itself.  

An “energy vampire,” the Outworlder is just one villain here.  The other is the ship’s captain, Delos, who is wired directly into the spaceship -- which he considers his body -- and is concerned only with his vessel, not his human crew.

One corridor on the ship looks exactly like the interior of the Millennium Falcon.  That may or may not be a coincidence.


The “Space Magic” this week is also incredibly stupid. Doro teaches Tundro about magnetism, but in fact is just blowing air from his mouth on a stick.  

Yep, that’s magic, all right.

“Space Fact,” meanwhile, finds Space Ace and Astro discussing the sun’s incredible heat, a concept which recurs in the “Space Mystery.” Here, Space Ace and his canine budz battle the Automan, who steals the fastest space car in the galaxy, but stops at the sun…because it’s too hot.


Finally, “Space Code” involves Space Ghost and the deciphering of the phrase “Trouble in the Martian Empire.”

Two episodes left!

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Shazam!: "Little Boy Lost" (November 16, 1974)


In “Little Boy Lost,” Billy (Michael Gray) and Mentor (Les Tremayne) rescue a mute runaway boy named Howard (Mark Edward Hall), who has stolen a puppy. 

His Dad, Sam (John Carter) is grateful to have his boy back safely. He tells Billy and Mentor that the boy has not spoken since his friend was involved in an accident.  Young Howard feels responsible for it.

After Howard and his Dad leave, they take a detour to a ghost town, and the dog falls down into a deep hole.  Sam, trying to rescue the dog, falls down the mine-shaft.

Howard, trying to rescue his father, seeks out the help of Captain Marvel (Jackson Bostwick).


  
Well, at least Captain Marvel isn’t stuck helping out teenagers this week on Filmation’s Shazam. 

Instead, he must help a boy with low self-esteem rescue his father from a hole in the ground in a deserted mining town.



Of course, it’s very strange that Sam and Howard would decide to stop and walk around a very dangerous ghost mining town, but as I like to point out in these reviews, Shazam had no standing locations upon which to rely, week-to-week.  The film crew just had to tool around Southern California and find places to shoot.

This week, there's some good footage of Michael Gray's Billy rescuing young Howard from a rocky, tumultuous sea.



The Elders’ don’t name-check any famous historical or literary figures in “Little Boy Lost,” But do have some advice for Bily, vis-à-vis Howard.  “There are those who speak, but do not hear. And those who hear, but do not speak.”  

I suppose that fortune cookie wisdom means, simply, that you should pay attention to the quiet ones. They may not seem to be suffering, but they very well may be.


Next week: “The Delinquent.”

Friday, October 07, 2016

The Films of 1999: The Blair Witch Project



A student documentarian, Heather Donohue (herself), organizes a project to study the legend of the Blair Witch, a supernatural figure reputed to live in the Black Hills of Maryland.

Along with photographer Joshua Leonard (himself) and sound-man Michael Williams (himself) she heads to the former town of Blair, known as Burkittsville, and begins conducting interviews with the locals.

The locals tell of the history of the witch, Elly Kedward, as well as that of Rustin Parr, a child murderer who is believed to have been influenced by the witch.

The crew heads out into the Black Hills to film Coffin Rock, a site where the witch is believed to have committed brutal, murderous acts against town locals.

Afterwards, the crew becomes lost in the woods, and, day-by-day, night-by-night, comes to believe that the witch is nearby.

After a terrifying visit to a house in the woods, Heather, Michael and Joshua’s odyssey comes to an end.

Later, their footage is found…


I must confess, there are few things that irritate me more than listening to the complaints of horror enthusiasts who vehemently dislike The Blair Witch Project (1999).  I guess that's a failing on my part, but it's true.

Some folks feel they were taken in by the movie's (very successful) hype and marketing. Others feel The Blair Witch Project is a shaggy dog story that never reveals the titular "monster" and ultimately goes nowhere.  There is also that group which, when you name the film, complains about how they got motion sickness from watching it.

So it's a controversial genre film, to say the least. I’ve been thinking about it all week, in light of the sequels, and keep coming back to The Blair Witch Project as a remarkable film, hype or no hype.  

I’ll be writing here about why I enjoy and appreciate the film so much, but the late Roger Ebert also had an elegant and crisp take on the film:

At a time when digital techniques can show us almost anything, "The Blair Witch Project" is a reminder that what really scares us is the stuff we can't see. The noise in the dark is almost always scarier than what makes the noise in the dark.


I firmly believe The Blair Witch Project holds up as both great horror movie and also as a great, immediate movie-going experience more-than-a-decade-and-a-half after its theatrical release.  

The film is a neo-classic of the 1990s self-reflexive age; a decidedly ambiguous film that either concerns three film students bedeviled by an evil witch in the woods, or three film students be-deviled by their own inability to distinguish fantasy from reality.

I will never argue that The Blair Witch Project isn't chaotic and even a bit messy.

I only argue that it is chaotic and messy in a manner of tremendous significance and artistry; in a manner that very craftily supports the movie's thesis: the idea of chasing your own tail, alone, when your technology can't be of assistance and -- in fact -- hinders you. 

Out in the woods, a movie camera can record your shrieking terror or tape your final confessional, but it can't telephone the police for you, or point in you in the right direction to find your way home.  It can’t even tell you that your home is still out there, somewhere beyond the seemingly endless woods, for that matter.

The manner of the film's first-person presentation reflects this content strongly, this idea that multiple interpretations of reality are possible. 



So The Blair Witch Project sometimes has the audience watching video tape, sometimes watching film stock.  

Sometimes the action is a live event unfolding before our eyes, apparently un-staged. And sometimes, we're watching staged bits of a student's documentary project...deliberately staged (for example: Heather's monologue at Coffin Rock).

All these visualizations successfully fragment the film's sense of reality, making said reality that much harder to pinpoint.  Hoax or horror?  Is the movie about arrogant kids who can't cope with nature; or about kids attacked by a force of the supernatural?

What's the point of the movie's meditation?  

The point is that this was life in America at the turn of the Millennium, and even more so today, in 2016. 

I like to use President Bill Clinton -- impeached in 1999 -- as a perfect example of this facet of our public discourse.  Was he a great commander-in-chief who, through his steady stewardship saved the American economy and brought prosperity and boom times to a nation formerly in recession?  Or was he the cheating "Big Creep" as Monica Lewinsky called him, and worthy of the impeachment the Republicans so gleefully prosecuted?

Or -- and here's the tricky part -- is he simultaneously both things at the same time? 

Meet the moral relativity of the 1990s. 

Again.

By the end of that decade, we had 24-hour news cable stations, the Internet, and even the nascent blogosphere, yet we were no closer to understanding the truth in the important case of this one man, the most famous man in the nation

In other words, technology wasn't helping us in the quest for important answers.  We had at the end of the 1990s (and now as well...) more science and technology at our disposal than ever before in the history of our species and yet we couldn't agree even on the most basic facts, let alone the interpretation of those facts.  As a nation, we devoted more hours and more words to the Monica Lewinsky affair than any event in modern history up to that point, yet we remained divided about what it was all about, why it mattered, and what it represented.

In a nutshell, that's what The Blair Witch Project is all about:  the unresolved anxieties of the new technological age (the age of the dot.com boom and bust). 

The movie asks us to pull the narrative pieces together -- pieces of media, literally found footage -- and to seek sense, reality and truth for ourselves.  But the tools aren't up to the task.

And, heck, why is no horrific special effects monster revealed at the end of this motion picture? Well, as I suggested in my review for 2016’s Blair Witch: when was the last time you were certain you saw the real Loch Ness Monster uploaded in a YouTube video? 

When was the last time you had a 100% clarity that you were watching a video of the real Sasquatch on Veoh or Vimeo or whatever? 

Never, you say? 

Exactly right.  

For every such claim of "authenticity" in the Web 2.0 Age, you must now bring your experience, skepticism and technological know-how to the game.  Was the video a special effect?  A green screen? A matte?  Photo-shopped?  Or just very cunningly staged with actors?

This is the bailiwick of The Blair Witch Project.  It dwells meaningfully in that haze of tech-savvy uncertainty; factoring in technology and your experience with the tools you use every day. 

Think you see something?  What did you see?  Are you certain? 


Again, the point of a good, transgressive horror movie is to disturb, to unsettle.  In The Blair Witch Project's deliberate ambiguity, we do feel uncomfortable.  Human life is ambiguous too: we don't always get the answers we want about why things happen to us; why fate can be cruel. 

And conventional movies -- through their familiar and predictable three act structure and process of "learning" -- cheat about that simple fact.  

Movies give us answers.  They show us monsters.  They resolve mysteries.  We are content with this, because our disordered lives feel very structured and orderly when we watch movies.  We get ninety minutes of predictable, ordered existence.

But horror movies, especially decorum shattering ones, have no such responsibility to preserve our peace of mind. 

Quite the contrary.

So The Blair Witch Project is really about those things in our existence that, even with the best technology available, remain disturbingly opaque.  We can put a boom mic on things, and point a camera at them, and still, we can't understand them.

Information doesn't always provide clarity. Sometimes it merely confounds and obfuscates.  Thus the Blair Witch Project also concerns the way that mass media often shields viewers from reality; for better or for worse distancing us from unpleasant facts. 

Late in the film, this theme is given voice.  Joshua picks up Heather's video camera and notes that the image it captures "is not quite reality." 

 Rather, "it's totally like, filtered reality.  You can pretend everything isn't quite the way it is."

He's right. The modern audience is accustomed (nay, conditioned) to the longstanding rules of filmmaking and television production, where the rectangular (or square) frame itself is structured rigorously, and compositions of film grammar symbolize certain accessible and concrete concepts. 

But life isn't like that.  Life is -- at its best -- disordered.  It doesn't exist within a frame; you can't capture life's complexities within a frame or a traditional narrative.  And The Blair Witch Project, with its oft-imitated first person point-of-view and semi-improvised screenplay, reminds us of that.

Like life itself, the movie is gloriously messy, and I love it for that reason.

As I've written before, The Blair Witch Project takes a very simple Hansel and Gretel story and then re-casts it in a technological, modern culture, and suggests that these three filmmakers are lost -- metaphorically and literally -- because technology has failed them.  They are abandoned by a culture that believes science and technology can solve any mystery and explain everything.  The film juxtaposes two ideas brilliantly.  One: science and technology give us the answers to everything. Two: a monster exists in the woods who can’t be detected, let alone understood, by our science and technology.

And the intense images in the film are really but the bread crumbs for the audience to follow in vain; in a circle.  Reality is elusive in those flickering pictures, and finally the only end is silence. Our last act in a technological world is turn away; to face the corner. 

But the camera still rolls.


The Blair Witch Project is a work of art because it reflects the age and questions in which it was made, and because it understands that ambiguity is always scarier than certainty will be. People can complain about the made-up dialogue (and cussing…), or the circular, nonsensical nature of the narrative at points, and yet their complaints are really about one thing, I believe.

It’s about them.

They were taken in. 

They were immersed by the film’s replication of disordered reality. And they resent, on some level; that they were so taken in by experience of the film. They are angry, in fact, that the film went so far as to deny them closure and order, the very thing we seek in films.

The Blair Witch Project terrified them, and didn’t even have the good grace to end with a close-up of the witch, so we could all look at her costume/make-up and realize that what we were seeing, all along, was simple Hollywood fakery.

I would argue too that the film’s success is boosted almost immeasurably by Heather Donohue’s performance.  People have mocked it, imitated it, and derided it, and yet when you watch the film, her terror seems absolutely palpable. It feels genuine. Unforced. True.  


And again, I suspect that those who find horror films simply “fun” don’t want to be confronted with the depth of terror that her performance creates.  Her screams for Josh are blood-curling. We are conditioned for our final girls to be resourceful librarian-in-glasses types, who, finally, overcome their monstrous enemies.  Heather is a smart leader, a resourceful person, and she never, ever, gets close to even understanding exactly what she is up against.  

She doesn’t “win,” and, well, our culture hates those who don’t win. We view them as weak, as failures.  Some of the hostility that Heather has endured in real life is no doubt a result of this viewpoint.


At this juncture, I have probably watched The Blair Witch Project at least a dozen times. And yet when the film gets to that dark house in the woods, my throat still tightens, my pulse still quickens.  I feel this way only about a small handful of horror films that I have watched so many times. 

There are three, actually, I never watch when I am alone in the house: The Exorcist (1973), Halloween (1978), and The Blair Witch Project (1999).

In the case of The BWP, it’s because the film seems relentlessly targeted at the irrational part of the psyche. It strikes at the part of us that fears the dark and knows instinctively --- deep, deep down -- that there are monsters out there in the woods.

Worse, The Blair Witch Project knows that our rational way of seeing the world -- with cameras and the like -- will do us no good when the witch comes to take us.


Movie Trailer: The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Thursday, October 06, 2016

The Films of 2000: Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2



“The following is a fictionalized re-enactment of events that occurred after the release of The Blair Witch Project. It is based on public records, local Maryland TV broadcasts, and hundreds of hours of taped interviews. To protect the privacy of certain individuals, some names have been changed.”

-Opening Card for Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2.

Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000) followed hot on the heels of The Blair Witch Project’s (1999) record-breaking box office engagement, no doubt hoping to strike again while the iron was still hot.

The result is a horror film with moments of fleeting intelligence and promise, but one that feels, overall, half-baked. Perhaps this is a case in which a little more development time would have benefited the creative team, and allowed for a re-consideration of some of the dodgier moments and ideas.

This horror sequel was directed by Joe Berlinger, a thoughtful documentary filmmaker who has helmed such worthwhile efforts as Brother’s Keeper (1992), Paradise Lost (1996) and Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (2004). 

Berlinger is not a hack, and the fact that Book of Shadows often looks very much like the product of a hack is likely the (unfortunate) result of heavy creative interference.

Still, the second Blair Witch picture suffers from a terrible and unenviable burden: the desperate need to successfully follow-up a surprise and innovative hit movie, and yet somehow not seem like a rerun or cash-grab.

Accordingly, the decision was made not to repeat the found footage formula of the Myrick and Sanchez original.  Frankly, the film’s many deficits may all stem from that single creative decision, because going from BWP’s hyper-reality to Book of Shadow’s traditional “movie” reality is a jarring, and often distasteful experience.  

One cannot escape the sense that reality, or verisimilitude, has been lost, even sacrificed, in the transition from the first film to the second.


Because of its notable stylistic differences from The Blair Witch Project, the sequel feels like it takes place in another universe all-together. It is shot in lush, vivid color, features conventional horror special effects, and casts nubile young women as “eye candy.”  Even the familiar 1980s “vice precedes slice-and-dice” paradigm is reinstated for this film as the young attractive characters smoke weed, booze it up, and get frisky by moonlight…just in time to be manipulated by the Blair Witch.

Frankly, the film looks and feels very much like a 1997-1999 Wishmaster or Hellraiser sequel, and one that might have gone direct-to-video, skipping theaters all-together.  There is nothing visually distinct about the film; nothing to mark it as the next chapter in the Blair Witch mythos.

To describe this another way, Book of Shadows plays out like a very conventional, very generic turn-of-the-century horror film, even though one can pinpoint moments that attempt to ascend to the brilliant “meta”-reality of the source material.

But for every one of those moments Book of Shadows offers up poorly calibrated performances, non-persuasive quick-cuts of gore (meant to up the film’s “visual violence” quotient) and confusion about how this installment interacts with its famous (infamous?) predecessor.

Again, one can argue that Berlinger and the other filmmakers made the only choice possible under the circumstances, deciding not to recreate the unique alchemy of The Blair Witch Project. 

But just look at the results. This is a sequel that feels like a fakey Hollywood movie, and doesn’t really offer anything coherent in terms of philosophy, or even in terms of “in-franchise” universe development.

Book of Shadows is a total misfire, even considering the no-doubt sincere efforts of Berlinger, and the decision to move the franchise in a new and original direction.

We can say now, with sixteen years of retrospect, that the new path offered by the Blair Witch sequel was also the wrong one.



“Perception is reality.”

Less than a year after the release of the hit horror film, The Blair Witch Project (1999),  the town of Burkittsville is under siege by tourists and fortune-seekers.

One such fortune seeker is former mental patient, Jeffrey Patterson (Jeffery Donovan), who has started a tour company dedicated to exploring the Black Hills, called Blair Witch Hunt.

On his latest excursion, Jeffrey takes two writers -- Stephen (Stephen Ryan Parker) and his girlfriend Tristen (Tristine Skyler) -- who are doing research on the Blair Witch and mass hysteria to the foundation of Rustin Parr’s house, which burned down years earlier. It is there, however, that Heather Donohue’s footage was found, setting off the Blair Witch Craze.

Along with a Wiccan, Erica (Erica Leerhsen), and a Goth, Kim (Kim Director), the trio stays the night in the Black Hills. 

The next morning, however, no one can account for hours of missing time, the destruction of Stephen and Tristen’s research, or the destruction of Jeffrey’s video cameras. 

Worse, a group of tourists are discovered dead -- murdered -- at Coffin Rock, and the local Sheriff, Cravens (Lanny Flaherty), suspects Jeffrey and his group.

Jeffrey brings his clients back to his house, an abandoned factory in the Black Hills, and, after finding his footage, attempts to recreate the mystery of their missing time.

Meanwhile, the spirit of a little girl comes to them, and warns the cursed souls they have brought something back from the woods with them; possibly the Blair Witch herself.


“We’re all virgins on this bus.”

The film quote above -- “we are all virgins on this bus” -- is a good shorthand, actually, for78 summing up the deficits and challenges of Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. 

After The Blair Witch Project, none of us are virgins on this particular bus ride.  

We’ve all been to the woods, and encountered young people cursed by a reality-bending supernatural entity. We’ve seen the Burkittsville town sign (now ensconced on a wall in Jeffrey’s house), and we’ve been to the Burkittsville-Union Cemetery too.  We’ve been lost in the woods, and we’ve contended with altered states of reality.



So, with the knowledge that there are no virgins on this bus, how does a filmmaker make this story seem fresh and new again, especially after some moments in the original -- including Heather’s close-up confession -- ascended immediately to the level of pop culture touchstones?

Book of Shadows doesn’t really offer a coherent solution for that challenge, so it provides several different alleyways which become, finally, dead ends.   

For instance, the film opens with a title card, which establishes that this is movie a “fictionalized” re-enactment of real events. That means that the film acknowledges, up front, that the individuals in the story, like Jeffrey, are being played by actors. That’s what the term re-enactment means.

Yet when the film purports in its opening scenes to show the audience “real” footage of Burkittsville locals, who shows up there but Jeffrey, played by the same actor (Jeffrey Donovan)?


The two moments, taken in tandem, generate creative dissonance.  Either Jeffrey is an actor playing a role in a fictionalized “re-enactment” or a real individual caught on tape in Burkittsville as the newscast footage indicates.

So which is it?  Because he can't be both.

Secondly, if this is a re-enactment, one wonders why some moments are presented in a highly-stylized, two-dimensional, horror-comic-book nature, and others are not. The youngsters, for example, all seem generally “real,” not exaggerating their reactions or roles. 

But just look at the (godawful) scenes showcasing Jeffrey's stay in a mental hospital. 

They are rife with cockeyed angles, strangely made-up nurses, and doctors, and so forth, all suggesting not any concept of reality, but rather heightened, comic-book reality.  Again, would a re-enactment attempting to recreate a real event adopt this particular visual approach?  More to the point, would it tread, at all, into Jeffrey’s incarceration and treatment by doctors? 


And then consider the performance of Lanny Flaherty as Sheriff Cravens, who plays a stereotypical “hick” law enforcement official.  He is such a walking, talking cliché, it is impossible to consider him “real,” and so again we face a crisis suspending disbelief.  No re-enactment would portray a sheriff in such a fashion. A re-enactment wants to seem real; only a horror movie tries up the ante with such stylized performances.

The Blair Witch Project ran on parallel realities, in a sense. In one interpretation of reality, something supernatural chased down Heather and her friends in the woods.  In another, three kids out in the wild got lost, scared themselves silly, and eventually died, leaving behind a testament not to the supernatural, but to their own hysteria. 

 all, the cameras saw nothing, really, or at least nothing that pointed, definitively, to a witch.

To its credit, Book of Shadows attempts to recreate this meta-reality formula or dynamic through the characters of Stephen and Tristen. 

Stephen believes that the Blair Witch story is indeed one “created by hysteria,” and he even likens Burkittsville to the Bermuda Triangle. By contrast, Tristen thinks the story of the Blair Witch exists in a “place of truth.”


They keep arguing, and that’s the point.  As the film’s dialogue points out, “perception is reality," and each of us possesses different perceptual sets. We select those things that seem to conform to our previous life experience, after all.  Therefore, we each experience life a little differently.  This idea was clearly intended to be the through line of the film, and yet it doesn’t really come through successfully.

At the beginning of the film, for instance, we see “real” life people Kurt Loder, Roger Ebert, Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien talking (on their respective TV programs) about The Blair Witch Project.  Then we meet the locals of Burkittsville and the tourists there. All of these individuals perceive a different reality.  For the townspeople, there is a sense of annoyance and bemusement with the tourists.  For the tourists there is a promise of encountering something truly new, something truly different. For the TV personalities, it's all an abstract exercise in either criticism, news reporting, or humor.

The idea, again, is that those on the Blair Witch Hunt are the product of these roiling differences in perception and conflicted psychologies. They go out into the woods, and commit murder.  But they commit murder because either they are hysterical -- worked up into a froth by the movie’s popularity -- or because a witch now controls them.

Overall, Book of Shadows vets its dual reality in a scattershot, incoherent fashion. The skeptic, Stephen, for instance, actually sees a backwards-walking child ghost on the bridge to Jeffrey’s house, and she tells him, literally, that he has brought something back from the woods.


Stephen never tells anyone about this encounter, and stubbornly clings to his belief that the Blair Witch is just hysteria.

Because who is he going to believe: his masters’ dissertation, or his lying eyes?

The film boasts other problems as well. A key plot point is the murder of tourists at Coffin Rock.  We meet these doomed characters just once (and quite briefly at that), so their deaths mean virtually nothing in terms of the story or in terms of audience identification.  There is no drama surrounding their deaths, no feeling of loss.  Nothing at all.

We also never see, recreated in much meaningful detail, the protagonists murdering them. Instead, all we get are these violent quick cuts of gore close-ups. 

These same shots could have been used to establish anybody killing the tourists, so they are not exactly persuasive, or memorable. We see these cuts from the very beginning of the film (even during the opening credits), in intrusive insert shots, and they don’t really connect in a way that carries emotional resonance.  

We don’t know the victims, and since we have seen a ghost literally warn the characters about the existence of something evil, we never interpret the crimes, as the filmmakers hope, as an act of mass hysteria or madness.

Another “track” going in Book of Shadows is surely one of social critique. We meet Jeffrey, who runs a Blair Witch store on-line that sells hats, T-shirts, stick figures, key chains and so on.  He talks about E-Bay, etc.  The point seems to be that there is a sucker born every minute, and that The Blair Witch Project isn’t so much as a movie but rather a 75 minute advertisement for licensed merchandise.

Perhaps this commentary is supposed to be amusing, but I’m not convinced that an official sequel to The Blair Witch Project is the right place for it as a major theme.  Ostensibly, people seeing this film want to see the property treated in a respectful fashion, and learn more about its universe (and central, if unseen, figure: the witch).  

Instead, this movie has the bad taste and temerity to suggest that The Blair Witch Project is responsible for inspiring the (fictional) murders at Coffin Rock. But we all know from Scream (1996), of course, that horror movies don’t make people killers. They make killers more inventive. 

Even in terms of pure plausibility, Book of Shadows comes up a bit short. Every character begins to get a red rash on their torso that just happens to look exactly like the letters of the Pagan Alphabet, and nobody seems really bothered by it.

I would surely be more concerned.

Love it or hate it, The Blair Witch Project was an immersive experience. You were dropped into the woods with those characters, and your hopes and fears rose and fell with each new discovery.  Book of Shadows never casts an aura like that. It never creates a coherent reality.  And without that structure underlying it, the film is never frightening.

The film is smart enough to know that “people just want to see something,” but this sequel never decides, really, what it should show, or what it shouldn’t show.  It doesn’t even really, decide, I fear, what actually happens in the film.  

It’s either a re-enactment or not.  It’s either mass hysteria or not. 

Unfortunately, there are two things we can decide Book of Shadows never is: scary or good.

Movie Trailer: Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000)