First, the good news. In Blair Witch 2, you don't get to see the witch, not even her hairy arms. And the bad news? By opting to wallow in the mythos and enigma of its own legend, it fudges its predecessor's primal fears in favour of a hum-drum conundrum that, like its subtitle Book Of Shadows, is ultimately meaningless.
Admittedly, it opens well. After billing itself as a "fictionalised re-enactment" of events, it slashes through blips from a CNN report about the original's impact on the town of Burkittsville. Cue footage of griping residents, stickmen gift shops and flocks of goths trampling through the woods. BW2 mirrors real-life events, so the art-imitating-life-imitating-art slant is a sly wink at the film's own hyped heritage. Problem is, what starts as a wink soon spasms into a shutter-speed twitch of ironic over-indulgence.
If you thought that the Scream series was self-referential, wait until you see this. Each Blair-obsessed character assumes their actor's name (or as near as), as in the original. Smudged bursts of grainy camcorder and frame-filling faces nudge at Blair Witch's lo-fi origins. Wily references to the hysteria surrounding the original abound (the merchandise, the internet). And each strand of the tangled urban legend plays its own part (so those who haven't seen the first movie will be utterly confounded).
All very clever, then, but the movie's so busy being the son of a phenomenon and playing the offspring munching on its own mother that it forgets to be scary. True, director Joe Berlinger tries to do something ambitious and different with the multiple flashbacks. Even if you don't care whether the Blair casualties are under siege from a spectral entity or victims of their own internal bogeymen, his rippling hallucinatory tricks leave you with little idea as to what will spring from the screen next.
Yet for all its structural judders, BW2 is just a prosaic haunted-house movie with goth-rock shadings. When the infamous five retreat to jittery Jeff's doss-chic warehouse, the mystery thickens but the frights are limited to the "Don't open the door/Don't turn around/What's that noise?" school of scares. Wes Craven could do this in his sleep and cause nightmares, but Berlinger's hand is less sure. Replacing the original's insidious chills with explicit gore would be cheap, but not quite as cheap as when Berlinger plays a real duffer's jump with a stuffed owl. As for Blair-fear, it merely manifests itself in the screams of an at-best adequate cast (sample quote: "Damn, you really are in bullshit territory here!").
As an exercise in deconstructing the original's impact on popular culture, BW2 is an unqualified success. As a horror movie that rarely pulses above the mildly disturbing, it's a frustrating failure. Go see for the novelty value but please, don't have nightmares...