- The Washington Times - Friday, October 27, 2000

One out of four stars

TITLE: "Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2"

RATING: R (Occasional graphic violence, with gruesome illustrative details; recurrent nudity, in the context of diabolical orgies and murder sprees)

CREDITS: Directed by Joe Berlinger

RUNNING TIME: 102 minutes

''We brought something back with us," observes one of the haunted characters in "Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2." So they have: an advanced case of the dreaded sequel pox. The unmistakably grotesque and laughable symptoms may be immune to morbid opening-weekend curiosity at the box office, but they appear certain to provoke waves of derision and bring a resounding collapse by next weekend.

How wrong could the sequel to "The Blair Witch Project" go? Utterly, to judge from "Shadows," which contrives to demystify and trivialize every compelling aspect of the original, an exemplary low-budget horror thriller that made a creative virtue of ominous impressions and bare-bones resources.

The original directors, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Suarez, now fronting as executive producers while attempting to sustain a "Blair Witch" franchise, entrusted the follow-up to an admirable documentary filmmaker, Joe Berlinger.

Unfortunately, a lack of experience with fictional formats and pitfalls conspires with a lack of mesmeric powers over desperately semiprofessional actors to gang up on Mr. Berlinger.

Moviegoers who felt cheated of picturesque atrocities by the restraint of the original may get their fill of gore at the sequel. Anyway, if you hear the big lie, "It's better than the original," consider it shorthand for, "They showed me the carnage."

Not to mention flagrant flashes of naked, orgiastic cavorting that anticipate the compatibly flagrant carnage. The methodology undergoes a complete reversal. "Project" demonstrated brilliantly that less could be more; "Shadows" reciprocates in the most disillusioning way imaginable, demonstrating that more amounts to a smoldering heap of less.

The film does get off to an amusing start by calling attention to the fame of the original. Released in midsummer 1999, "The Blair Witch Project" capitalized on both genuine ingenuity and outrageously serendipitous exploitability, ascribed in part to pioneering Internet promotion. A $30,000 sleeper was transformed into an optimum Cinderella attraction, a $200 million blockbuster.

The "Blair Witch" phenomenon is summarized wittily in the opening sequence of "Shadows" and then used as a springboard for a new entrapment plot.

Relatively flush with a budget of $4 million, "Shadows" can afford to engulf and devour 10 characters who venture into the so-called Black Hills Forest near Burkittsville, Md., the same mysterious, demonic landscape that swallowed up film students Heather, Josh and Michael in the prototype.

Half this contingent are minor characters, introduced expressly to be slaughtered. The other half are the principals, a young opportunist named Jeff (Jeffrey Donovan), who has started a "Blair Witch Tour" business and escorts a quartet of clients for a weekend outing: Tristen and Stephen (Tristen Skyler and Stephen Barker Turner), simultaneously academics and lovers; Erica (Erica Leerhsen), who purports to be a Wiccan witch and does the lion's share of the disrobing; and Kim (Kim Director, a name that somehow defies authority), a prospective goth dominatrix who falls short of prurient expectations.

The two groups cross paths during a night in the forest. Something terrible happens to the expendable, faraway five. Five hours also vanish from the recollections of the nearby quintet, but because the excursion is being videotaped elaborately by entrepreneur Jeff, the missing hours can be retrieved on playback machines at his secluded warehouse-studio-pad, another deathtrap.

The playback proves so incriminating that imaginative participation in a "mystery" becomes ridiculous. The shameful video evidence wreaks havoc among the principals, in the grip of that evil something or other brought back from the camp-out.

Mr. Berlinger tries to complicate the time frame by straddling the fateful excursion and aftermaths that must belong to a near future, which finds the survivors in the custody of very harsh authorities.

Coincidentally, another day of judgment has arrived. Everyone responsible for "Book of Shadows" can expect to be pelted by harsh words in response to the mess they have made of things.

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