No one can accuse Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick of having handed off the sequel to their phenomenally successful The Blair Witch Project to a hack. Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 director/co-writer Joe Berlinger is a respected documentarian whose credits include Brother's Keeper (1992) and, more relevantly, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996) and its sequel Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000), provocative and deeply disturbing films that examine a case of real-life slaughter in the woods. And to his credit, Berlinger didn't try to mimic the minimalist production values that made Blair Witch so gripping (and queasy-making)-quite the opposite, in fact. His lushly photographed film is constructed as a critique of Blair Witch-mania and the widespread cultural belief-in video veritas-that The Blair Witch Project exploited so brilliantly. So it's unfortunate to have to report that for all its intelligence and painstaking construction, Book of Shadows doesn't add up to much beyond a great set of conceits.

The notion of blurring the line between fact and fiction is given a twist here; Book of Shadows proceeds from the assumption that the first film was fiction, but the lore behind it is real, and purports to be a fictionalized account of actual events (a charade that also drives the movie's surprisingly effective cable companion piece, Shadow of the Blair Witch). After a mockumentary opening establishes the lingering effects of Blair Witch on the residents of tiny Burkittsville, Maryland (they're overrun by tourists with camcorders and a mighty lust for Blair Witch tchotchkes), Berlinger introduces four characters sufficiently obsessed by the first movie that they've made the pilgrimage to Burkittsville for native son Jeff Patterson's (Jeffrey Donovan) 'Blair Witch-Hunt' tour of witch-related sites. Wiccan Erica (Erica Leerhsen), incensed by the movie's perpetuation of wicked-witch stereotypes, hopes to contact the spirit of Elly Kedward, the real Blair witch. Goth-girl Kim (Kim Director) looks forward to grooving on the spooky atmosphere of the Black Hills. And Tristen and Stephen (Tristen Skylar and Stephen Barker Turner) are collaborating on a book about the Blair Witch Project phenomenon; he thinks it's a textbook case of mass hysteria, while she takes the folklorist's view that so much smoke probably indicates at least an ember of truth. They might be a little less willing to spend the night in the woods with Jeff if they knew he was only recently released from an insane asylum. But they don't, and frankly, he doesn't seem any odder than the leader of the rival Blair Witch Walk tour, with whom they have words over who gets to camp in the ruins of child-murderer Rustin Parr's house.

The Witch-Walkers are dispatched to nearby Coffin Rock, another witchy site, and the Witch-Hunters, camera equipment arrayed around them to capture supernatural manifestations, settle in for a night of drinking and dope-smoking 'round the campfire. They awake to a scene of utter destruction: Stephen and Tristen's notes are raining down in the form of tickertape-like shreds, the camera equipment has been destroyed and all that remains is a handful of tapes buried in the same spot where the Blair Witch Project's film was supposed to have been found. Woozy, baffled and more than a little freaked-out, the group repairs to Jeff's place-an abandoned factory on the outskirts of town-and goes to the videotapes, hoping they'll reveal what transpired the night before. Another great set-up: The unhappy campers must reconstruct their own stories from videotaped sources, including TV broadcasts from Coffin Rock, where that pesky group of rival campers has just been found ritually slain. Have the Witch-Hunters raised the malevolent spirit of the Blair witch? Is there a fiendishly clever psycho-killer in their midst? Or are they caught up in some unspeakably vicious conspiracy against outsiders? But this is the point at which Berlinger's cleverness outweighs the narrative sense so evident in Paradise Lost: In between the Rashomon-inspired shell games, Berlinger is so busy paying homage to classic horror movies that his movie starts looking like exactly the kind of clichd fright flick it purports to undermine, all howling hellhounds, visions of dead children and spooky dreams. The surprise ending doesn't come as much of a surprise-especially since Berlinger has been using flashforwards of carnage and police-station interviews throughout, effectively destroying any sense of suspense as to who makes it out alive-and getting to it requires sitting through some of the lamest dialogue this side of a sixth-generation, direct-to-video horror sequel. We can only hope Myrick and Sanchez do better with their Blair Witch prequel, which is slated to hit theatres in summer 2001.

--Maitland McDonagh