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Film - Jonathan Romney wanders into the woods and finds only a pale shadow of <em>Blair Witch</em>

The Blair Witch Project may not rank among the very greatest horror films, but it was one hell of a marketing opportunity. The "mockumentary" premise was that the film comprised footage made by three students who had wandered into the deep, dark woods, never to return. Part H P Lovecraft, part Hansel and Gretel, the film was shot on camcorders by the actors themselves, and its greatest asset was the power of suggestion, the creeping presence of whatever you thought you saw looming in the juddery, low-resolution darkness.

With excitement cranked up by an ingenious website, the film took more than $140m in the US alone, making it a miracle of cost-effectiveness. It also created a brand, which is now shamelessly exploited in Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. The original film-makers, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, neither directed nor wrote it, but are credited as executive producers. They know a milch cow when they see one; the question is whether the poor beast is being milked or ritually slaughtered.

The premise sounded interesting at first - the sequel would not feature the same actors or characters, nor even be in the same style as the original. While the first film masqueraded as documentary - all the better to avoid the cliches of contemporary horror - Book of Shadows was entrusted to a real documentarist, Joe Berlinger, best known for a film about child murders. Yet, perversely, he has turned out a standard teen horror flick, jammed with all the cliches. Book of Shadows does, however, claim to be something else: the first caption announces "a fictionalised re-enactment of events after the release of The Blair Witch Project". We are on well-mapped territory, then - like the Scream franchise, this is another self-conscious horror film about horror.

Book of Shadows begins in the world we know, in which The Blair Witch Project has been a huge hit. In Burkittsville, Maryland - the scene of the original - the locals are heartily sick of visiting fans trekking through the woods. The souvenir trade, however, is doing nicely, and local boy Jeff is running a Blair Witch Tour. His clients include a nervy, colourless academic couple, a wry Goth and a latter-day New Age witch. Needless to say, they should have stayed home and rented Blair Witch #1 on video.

Like all sequels, this one promises to be a little different and a little the same. Like Myrick and Sanchez, Berlinger uses video footage supposedly shot by the characters, and also has the characters and cast share the same names, in the interest of that elusive blurring of reality and fiction. But unlike Myrick and Sanchez, Berlinger pulls every catchpenny trick in the book: a soupcon of vaguely raunchy sex, loads of tricksy MTV effects and swathes of thrash metal soundtrack. Call me old-fashioned, but loud electric guitars and the uncanny somehow don't go together - Marilyn Manson just doesn't chill my marrow. There's a nice comic moment at the start, when the group meets a rival tour and the two leaders face off with their camcorders. Then it descends into an idiot abyss: hell-hounds with digitally whitened fangs; ghostly 1890s urchins; a bridge that collapses, then doesn't; and, most gratuitously of all, what looks like a cameo from The Exorcist's demon child.

Let's give Berlinger and his co-writer, Dick Beebe, the benefit of the doubt, and accept that, as Berlinger claims, the object is "a meditation on violence in the media". The argument is that the characters are suffering from collective hysteria: they have taken the whole Blair Witch phenomenon a bit too seriously. Let's accept also that Berlinger wanted to extend the original film's exploration of camcorder phenomenology - hence, some nutty business about videotapes that show bizarre midnight orgies, but only when played backwards. A very generous interpretation, then, would be that the film's ludicrous excesses are really the excesses of a hypothetical sensationalist "re-enactment" of what might have happened to Jeff and co. Berlinger is actually parodying a very bad Blair Witch sequel that someone else might have made.

Do we buy this? I hope not. Berlinger wants to have it both ways. In the film, much talk is devoted to demystifying witchcraft - or Wicca, as devotees prefer to call it. Erica, its representative here, is a healthy New Age lass who simply likes to get her kit off outdoors. Yet the film's message is clear, and in keeping with the most conservative horror: don't mess with what you don't understand, because it will destroy you. And, more unpleasantly, if you must go into the dark woods, avoid the locals - ugly, intolerant hicks who will happily throw rocks at anyone under 20. This is horror designed to appeal to embittered teenage Limp Bizkit fans.

Book of Shadows claims to be interested in the moral panic over screen violence, ending with a TV newsreader tut- tutting that "violent art has inspired real-life violence". Yet the film finally seems to endorse that condemnation. The message seems to be that, if a horror film doesn't make you violent, it will drive you mad - or perhaps just bore you stupid. Berlinger's film is either witless or too clever for its own good - which, in horror, is as good as being witless. The audience that loved the original film will feel horribly short-changed by this mess. Blair Witch 3 is already in the works: perhaps its subject matter will be the sinister curse that made the second film bomb.

Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 is released nationwide on 27 October

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Divorce your husband and watch him get rich