& & by Ed Symkus & & & &

First, a few thoughts on The Blair Witch Project, that little film that was made for around $30,000 and went on to bring in close to $140 million just in the United States. Despite applauding that film's monetary success, I remain unconvinced that much of it, aside from the concept, was any good. It was a horror film that waffled instead of providing any real fright. Although it was "supposed" to look shaky and unprofessional, watching it eventually became a chore and an exercise in figuring out when the damn thing would end.

So I went to the sequel with apprehension, fearing that this, too, in trying to capitalize on whatever made the first one such a hit, would make for a similar experience. And for the first few minutes -- a combination of the original's gritty documentary-style of filmmaking and some quite funny self-deprecating jabs at what that first film's popularity resulted in as far as tourism in Maryland's Black Hills, I must admit, I didn't know what to think.

But when Book of Shadows finally gets down to business, it's one creepy movie, filled with the onscreen fears that the first one only hinted at. The documentary style of the beginning is merely a cinematic gag to lull viewers into the plot: A group of four people are brought to the area where the first film took place -- a lot of dialogue is spent referring to The Blair Witch Project and its legions of fans -- led by Jeff (Jeffrey Donovan), a video nut who makes extra cash by running what he calls "Blair Witch Hunt" tours.

So the five folks -- the horny guide, the Wiccan Erica (Erica Leerhsen), the Goth Kim (Kim Director), and the bickering couple, Tristen and Stephen (Tristen Skyler and Stephen Barker Turner) enter the infamous woods, have a few scares, then black out, waking to find that something destructive has happened while they were sleeping, but they're not sure how or even what.

That's the beginning of the end for these people. Things soon start to go very wrong, some clues are dropped but aren't followed up with answers, and the whole atmosphere of the film develops an unnerving edge.

Unlike The Blair Witch Project, a film that was rather chaste when it comes to horrific visuals, this one holds nothing back, albeit in an almost tame manner. There are lots of very quick flashes of gore, of long knives being buried in people's bodies, that may be flashbacks to who knows what, or may be premonitions of things to come.

That there's a plethora of confusion in this one is an understatement, but most of it is quite entertaining to attempt to figure out. It's made clear that footage of Jeff all tied up in a straitjacket and banging himself against padded white walls takes place well before he started running his tours. It's also made clear that some havoc has been wreaked upon the fivesome in the woods, but it's not immediately revealed by whom. One positive step in the sequel is that the people actually make it out of those woods, to the "safety" of the abandoned warehouse Jeff calls home. But they're still away from civilization as we know it.

Director Joe Berlinger is the documentarian who made (with Bruce Sinofsky) the films Brother's Keeper and Paradise Lost, both of which were about people accused of murder but who claimed their innocence. Book of Shadows covers some of the same terrain when we meet the Maryland cops, under the guidance of some wild and fabulous overacting by Lanny Flaherty (Natural Born Killers, A Simple Wish) as the excitable redneck Sheriff Cravens, a man convinced that the guide and his flock are troublemakers.

Berlinger packs the film with more video cameras and monitors than even Brian DePalma ever thought of using in his early days. It also features a series of startling images of what might be previous victims of the still-unseen villain. It keeps the soundtrack spinning with loud rock 'n' roll (Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie have prominent spots). And in its final minutes, the film turns everything upside down by segueing the mood from one of paranoia running rampant to one of grisly reality.

And reality, or the lack of it, is what the film actually ends up being about. Depending on the attitudes of viewers, some characters in it are going to be loved and some are going to be loathed. But all of them, at least those still alive by the end, will be caught up in the situation of whether or not what's happening is real or a figment of their collective imaginations. What's certain is that even though a lot of questions remain unanswered as the credits roll, the ending is a terrific one -- one that keeps the door open for another trip to the woods.

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