I quite liked it, apparently more than I'm supposed to. It's widely unpopular and even the director bitches about it on the DVD commentary. It's also missing an ending.
This was a troubled film. The original Blair Witch Project, whether or not you think it's a good film, was a worldwide phenomenon. It scared people in a way that horror films don't normally do, got everyone talking about it and took 248 million dollars gross revenue. That's more or less the GDP of the Federated States of Micronesia, from a budget of 22,000. A sequel was inevitable. Artisan (the distributors) wanted to get it into cinemas as soon as possible, but Haxan Films (who'd made the original) wanted to wait. Artisan thus went ahead without them. They hired Joe Berlinger, a documentary maker, and then after he'd finished recut his film and reshot some scenes to make it more like a traditional horror movie.
In the end, no one was happy. The sequel was profitable, but it wasn't popular and Artisan abandoned a further sequel they'd been planning. The original's directors were executive producers on the sequel, but they didn't have much influence and didn't like the final film. As for Berlinger, he's attacked the changes as undercutting the ambiguous tone he was going for.
Me, I liked it. The ambiguity doesn't work, but I can live with that.
Firstly, it's not trying to be a remake. That wouldn't have worked. A lot of sequels are thinly disguised remakes, but this one instead begins like a documentary about the original film. In the universe of Book of Shadows, its predecessor is fiction! This is a lot of fun, actually. Burkittsville, Maryland, has become a mecca for people who are either delusional, confused or just looking for a laugh. You've got people selling Blair Witch memorabilia on the internet, so for instance people are paying actual money for rocks dug up from some lady's garden. The reason she doesn't sell too many is "because it costs too much to ship a rock." This might be the best part of the movie and I wouldn't mind watching some of Joe Berlinger's documentaries.
However on top of that, it's a strong dramatic device. Horror movies can have a problem with plausibility. There's a certain kind of stupid behaviour that you almost expect in horror movies and is liable to shoot down the protagonists' credibility and audience sympathy. However this meta-fictional device establishes that we're not in a horror film. On the contrary, it feels more real than I can remember from any other horror film that springs to mind offhand, largely because much of that opening sequence is!
Once you're past all that, the underlying story is similar. You've got a bunch of young people with video cameras who are going to head into the woods and run into spooky phenomena. However they don't stay in the woods. This is good. It's stupid to hang around in cold, scary woods when you don't have to. They end up going back to their tour guide's house, which has video equipment and modern amenities. Furthermore I also quite liked the characters. They're not brilliant or anything, but they include a Wiccan who says things like "exploit our culture" and gets sniffy about people being rude about the Blair Witch, while another character is a laid-back Goth who's mildly psychic. They also have trouble with redneck locals. At the end of the day, they pass the basic test of "are these people interesting enough to sustain a movie on the process of their psychological disintegration?"
Oh, and their tour guide has his house rigged up with security cameras and isn't averse to watching his guests on them in real time. For the most part, that guy didn't strike me as being as mentally unbalanced as the script was saying, but that was creepy.
The movie's problem, as I've said, is how it mishandles its own ambiguity. Something's clearly being edited, be it reality, people's memories or a bunch of video tapes. It might even be all three. We're presented with paradoxical video recordings and this becomes one of the central planks of the plot, as our heroes study the footage and try to work out what's happening with jumping time codes and so on. Furthermore one character has psychic powers. I was interested, but I wasn't taking anything at all on trust. I was looking forward to seeing where all this was going, yet the movie's finale involves nothing more than incriminating video footage. The end. Roll credits. Yes, very funny. Where's the real ending? I'd been looking forward to explanations, revelations, dramatic extrapolation, or... well, anything. This isn't even sufficiently well-developed to count as ambiguity. It's like having someone tell you a hundred lies, each one bigger than the last, and then at the end say "he's the villain!" and run away laughing.
Oh, and the main narrative is being intercut with police interview footage and occasional glimpses of murder.
The coolest thing about this film is its marketing gimmick. This is a DVD feature called "The Secret of Esrever" (i.e. "reverse" backwards), encouraging you to look for a hidden message in the film. You'll have to look really hard, though. You'll be watching scenes in reverse or even sometimes frame by frame in order to spot all the words, so for instance the engraving on a tombstone will have changed for a second and then have changed back the next time you see it. These words could then be assembled into a sentence which you typed into the official Blair Witch website, after which you'd be shown an extra scene from the movie. Apparently the website will no longer do that, but I still think that's nifty.
This sequel isn't much like its predecessor at all. It has quite an interesting relationship with it, but it has a different character dynamic and it's telling a different kind of story. Personally I liked it. It's muddled, but I enjoyed watching the cast deal with their increasing levels of spookiness and stress. It's just that the film seems to stop, since the fictional ground rules it seems to have established mean that what the police would regard as conclusive evidence don't count for anything at all with the audience. You might enjoy it more with like-minded friends who'll talk it over afterwards, though. You can examine the pieces of the filmmakers' intentions and do for yourself what the film isn't doing for you.
Be warned though that it won a Razzie ("Worst Remake or Sequel") and was nominated for four more, including "Worst Picture". Mind you, the original got nominated too for that last one. I also don't see the relevance of the title.
The tree is cool though, even if the film soon forgets about it. Maybe it was added in the reshoots?