By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
By Claire Lawton
By Kiernan Maletsky
By Anna Merlan
Following a brief stay at the local hospital, Jeff and company return to his home, an abandoned broom factory that he has converted into the coolest Goth pad since Brad Pitt's home in Fight Club. As they proceed to analyze their footage for clues about the five lost hours, creepy stuff starts happening. Various gore-filled hallucinations begin to afflict all concerned. Strange noises are heard in the woods. Runic symbols begin appearing on everyone's body. And a rival group of campers that had been encountered earlier is reported to have been brutally murdered. Is it all an intense series of mass delusions? Or has the curse of the Blair Witch struck?
The cue for what follows is taken from David Lynch's Lost Highway, notably the scene from that film in which Bill Pullman expresses his hatred for camcorders because he likes to remember things "the way I remember them, not necessarily the way they happened," shortly before being convicted for a crime that appears to exist only on video. The paradigm of video's always telling the truth is brought into question again and again here, as is the nature of reality. Like Heather before him, Jeff insists upon filming the escalating conflicts of distrust at all times, because the camera won't (or at least, shouldn't) lie, and thus will exonerate him.
Read no further if you want to avoid all hints of additional plot points, but it's impossible not to think back to Paradise Lost while watching, and not just because Kim utters, "People think that because I dress in black I'm some kind of sick killer." Berlinger has admitted that he thought the accused teens were guilty until he actually began making that film; Book of Shadows at times resembles a fictional retelling of the same story, in which the accused are both real occultists and likely killers. And the titular book isn't present anywhere in this film, but it was one of the tomes found in the possession of Damian Echols in Paradise Lost.
To say that Book of Shadows is interesting may be damning with faint praise, but that really is the best word for it. It's different, but not really suspenseful: The narrative jumps backward and forward in time in such a way as to pretty much reveal who's going to live or die. It's not too scary either, although there are moments of creepiness, there's blood and gore, and Erica frequently gets naked (although her character refers to witches as a persecuted minority, it's doubtful she'll do much to help the cause by coming off as such a nymphomaniac ditz). And unlike in Mary Harron's American Psycho, the whole is-the-gore-real-or-not gambit seems like a complete cop-out here, a way to effectively invalidate any kind of chills we may have had about the mysterious woods.
It doesn't help matters that the characters are pursued by a local sheriff resembling the bastard hybrid of Yosemite Sam and the late Brion James ("Yew have been a paaaiiin in this town's aaasss since yew were tay-un," he sneers to Jeff). None of the leads is even all that sympathetic; only Kim comes off as likable, and that may depend on one's tolerance for spooky Goth girls. The film is undeniably unique in today's teen suspense climate, but it also brings to mind the far superior In the Mouth of Madness, a little seen John Carpenter masterpiece scripted by New Line chief Michael DeLuca. It's not only a better horror head trip, it's also proof that studio chiefs aren't all dummies.
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