Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Collingswood Story (2002)

Rebecca Miles (Stephanie Dees) has moved from Virginia to Collingswood in New Jersey to get away from some unsavory family business, leaving her boyfriend John (Johnny Burton) behind. John isn't too sure he isn't part of the reason Rebecca has left, but since he is still very much in love with her and she doesn't seem to want to break up with him, they are trying for a long distance relationship.

To make the distance hurt a little less, John gives Rebecca a webcam for her birthday (which is around Halloween). At first she plays around with it a little, calling a bunch of web cam freaks John has recommended to her, until she lands on the site of the webcam psychic Vera Madeline (Vera Madeline). Their reading is a little strange, what with the psychic guessing Rebecca's name although the young woman uses a pseudonym, but not strange enough for Rebecca to get too worked up about. When John calls the psychic, she talks quite a different game. She says she is compelled to warn Rebecca from something, and would even be willing to hold a seance without a fee. Then she tells John a story about Collingswood, something about a cult that has been secretly working and killing in Collingswood for centuries, using Halloween shakers as a symbol in their rituals.

When John tells Rebecca the story, she is creeped out but skeptical and not at all willing to talk to Vera again. John is unsure about the whole thing, so he does a little internet research. What he finds does nothing to relax him. The house where Rebecca now lives was the place of a murder suicide just a few years ago. A judge first drowned his children and then killed himself, right in what is now the guest bath room.

Nightmares don't do much to alleviate the pair's anxieties, but Rebecca is far too stubborn to let herself lose control over her life because of an internet psychic and a few rumors. She also does not seem too sure about John's motives in the strange little affair, as much as he isn't too sure about hers.

Both aren't able to leave things well enough alone though, and the viewer can't help but think that their insistence to get to the bottom of the weird secret they have stumbled upon will lead to something dreadful.

This seems to become something like the week of the bastard children of Blair Witch Project. The Collingswood Story's writer/director/editor Michael Costanza is getting creative with the elements of the POV style's mother by telling its story not through digital shaky cam but through (mostly static, and therefore cheap) a handful of webcam set-ups and a few video emails that are used to keep things moving a little - especially towards the end. It is quite a clever conceit, but one that could have failed miserably with a weak script or bad acting.

Fortunately the script if anything but weak. Costanza hits the campfire tale/urban myth feel that is ideal for the sub-genre beautifully, gives his characters a believable psychology that is actually entwined with the horror he subjects them to and shows an excellent sense of when it is useful to let the viewers themselves fill in the blanks and when not.

The acting is equally convincing. Both (the insanely cute) Dees and Burton are making the kind of natural impression that's essential to make the mock realism of POV horror work, while Vera Madeline does a little more scenery chewing than the sub-genre would usually recommend, but really makes that work for her role.

This being a horror film and all, it is of course not unimportant to mention that the film really creeped me out, enough so that I have right now turned on the lights in my living room and am throwing nervous glances backwards from time to time. Now, I am much more impressionable when it comes to ghost stories and urban myth than gore fests or torture porn, so other viewers' mileage will probably vary a bit, but if a film can make me dread the way to the toilet, it does something right.

The Collingswood Story is (relatively) contemporary independant, low budget horror filmmaking exactly like I like it, turning its budgetary deficits into virtues through sheer cleverness and energy. The kind of film that gives me hope for independent horror beyond boring, ambitionless gorefests.

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