Time regained

Five missing hours, five missing people.

WELCOME TO BURKITTSVILLE, population declining. The last three disappearances we remember, of course, from just over a year ago. Blair Witch was such a cultural phenomenon that its sequel opts to debunk the film and incorporate last summer's publicity frenzy into its own plot, which may frustrate its young, media-savvy audience. (If there's no mystery to solve, some fans will feel cheated.) Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrnick are now producing instead of directing, and presumably came up with the idea to confess their original Blair wasn't actually a documentary in this new "fictional reenactment . . . based on published records." Ironically, they've chosen an acclaimed documentary maker, Joe Berlinger, to helm a much slicker and more feature-looking follow-up. So, instead of fiction purporting to be fact, we have a kind of twisted America's Most Wanted effect—what you are about to see actually happened, in some form or another.

BOOK OF SHADOWS: BLAIR WITCH 2

directed by Joe Berlinger with Jeffrey Donovan, Erica Leerhsen, Kim Director, Stephen Barker Turner, and Tristen Skyler opens October 27 at Factoria, Metro, Northgate, Pacific Place, and others

Accordingly, the five characters who unwisely make a pilgrimage to the long-dead witch's supposed haunts can make breezy jokes about the original Blair and its cast. "How many Heather Donahues does it take to screw in a light bulb?" one wag asks at a drunken campfire in the ruins of an old crime site. ("Just oooone!" goes the shrieking punch line.) Berlinger brings the excitable quintet here after a very funny, brisk introduction that spoofs the original film and its attendant media reception. We glimpse Roger Ebert and others in a montage of real television clips, interspersed with newsy footage of the hype and hucksterism in Burkittsville.

An entire local industry has sprung up to cater to credulous Blair tourists. Entrepreneurial Jeff expands his business hawking twigs and rocks over the Internet and takes four paid clients on a Blair Witch tour. Sitting with him at the fateful campfire are Stephen and Tristen, a grad student couple writing a book on the public response to the movie; Kim, the cynical Goth chick ("I hate nature!"); and Erica, the Wicca babe who defends Elly Kedward, the Blair Witch of myth. (Or is she real?)

JEFF'S THEIR GUIDE but also a hustler, and flashbacks hint at even more disturbing problems in his past. (Or is it his future?) He and the others bond by partying in the darkened ruins—a sequence Berlinger treats like a rowdy high-school kegger. It's reminiscent of the two excellent Paradise Lost documentaries he previously codirected, where inarticulate teen outcasts gravitate to a vaguely understood dark side, represented by anything spooky and evil. Here, the misfits engage in amusing pot-haze epistemology about the public's belief that something real underlies the original movie's hype. It's been "created by hysteria," Stephen declares. "Perception is reality," Tristen retorts.

Problem is, when the group wakes up the next morning, perception begins to fail them. Something's happened. Five hours are missing from their elaborate self-videotaping system, leading them back to Jeff's lair to reconstruct events. At this point, the short, sardonically entertaining Book devolves into a whodunit, like Ten Little Indians meets Blowup. People start dying while our heroes pore over video monitors and computer consoles. In Jeff's abandoned factory pad (complete with surveillance cameras), our five protagonists seem like members of The Real World (or Big Brother). They're not teenagers but behave that way, with abrupt changes of mood and loyalty that betray a weakness of writing.

Though made from a pastiche of styles and influences, Book supplies plenty of fun jolts and what-was-that? moments. It's a smarter-than-average horror flick, yet it lacks the genius of the grainy, claustrophobic original, in which we couldn't see what was so terrifying to its three characters as they perished one by one. Their fear— created by missing information—infected us. Here, we share in the Book gang's (warped) perceptions and premonitions, not understanding everything initially but finally regaining our traditional, privileged position as movie spectators. Although Berlinger's video denouement startles, the denial doesn't go far enough.

 
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