The Collingswood Story Review

Michael Mackenzie has reviewed the R1 USA release of The Collingswood Story, a micro-budget independent movie that takes place entirely over web-cam and owes much inspiration to The Blair Witch Project. If that hasn’t already scared you away, take a look…

Note: when I first heard about The Collingswood Story, it was only available to buy from the official web site. The DVD reviewed here no longer seems to be available, but the Anchor Bay logo on the web site suggests that it has been picked up for distribution and will resurface before long.

Rebecca (Stephanie Dees) has gone off to college in Collingswood, leaving her boyfriend Johnny (Johnny Burton) a little put-out. They have the bright idea of attempting to keep their relationship going by communicating online via webcams. Johnny’s friend Billy (Grant Edmonds) puts the pair in touch with an online psychic called Vera Madeline (seemingly playing… herself), who sets in motion a chain of events relating to the terrifying history of the house in which Rebecca is living.

It is an undeniable fact that the video boom of the latter part of the 20th century has made it easier than ever before for amateur filmmakers to create their own movies. No longer restricted to shooting on film – often time-consuming and expensive – making a movie suddenly became as simple as picking up a video camera, getting some friends together and hitting “Record”. To put it in its starkest possible terms, money and talent were no longer necessities. Countless zero-budget horror efforts have been produced over the course of the last 20 years, many of them forgotten almost instantly (which, in many cases, was probably for the best). A few have survived, however, the most prominent example of which is probably The Blair Witch Project. While (as I have said in my review of its sequel, Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows) I am of the opinion that the film itself was far less impressive than the way it was marketed, its importance in the history of horror cinema cannot be ignored. In the wake of The Blair Witch Project‘s success, several no-name filmmakers decided to have a go at creating their own mockumentaries, and most, unsurprisingly, turned out to be awful. A few, however, have attracted some measure of interest, and The Collingswood Story is one of them. Running with the central gimmick of showing everything from the point of view of webcams, it has garnered an impressive level of praise from a number of key horror-related review sites, and would appear, three years after it was completed, to have secured backing from no less than Anchor Bay Entertainment – pretty impressive for a film made for under $10,000.

Imagine my disappointment, then, when, spurred on by the praise of these web sites, I picked up a copy of the film myself and was left utterly cold by it. The Collingswood Story, while not a complete dead loss, is not the film that so many people have raved about. Rather, it comes across as a clumsy attempt to cash in on The Blair Witch Project‘s popularity, only without the effective marketing campaign and rich mythology to give it substance.

Before completely trashing this effort, however, it seems only fair to start by describing its good points. The enthusiasm is definitely there, and writer/director Mike Costanza deserves credit for attempting to tackle a film with such a limited point of view. Restricting the whole thing to a series of webcam-based conversations undeniably makes it all the harder to tell an effective story, and had he been able to pull it off I would definitely have been impressed. The film also benefits greatly from excellent performances by its two leads, especially Stephanie Dees. Although no doubt helped by the low budget nature of the film and its decidedly down-to-earth video conferencing medium, Dees definitely contributes a great deal to the realism by giving a performance that seems genuine and unrehearsed. Actors who are able to look like they are not acting are incredibly rare, but she is certainly one of them. Johnny Burton’s performance seems more self-aware, but he is definitely likeable. The pair’s on-screen rapport is great and is made to seem all the more impressive when you learn that they were in fact recorded separately and pieced together to seem like they were actually interacting. Indeed, from what I can gather, they never even met.

Enthusiasm and acting talent alone cannot carry a movie, however, and ultimately, it fails for one very simple reason: it’s boring. Unlike The Blair Witch Project, which had the natural horror of the foreboding woods in its favour, The Collingswood Story is largely restricted to the comparitive safety of the characters’ respective bedrooms. This gimmick is simply too restrictive to tell the story the director wants to tell, and while the format might initially seem novel, it fairly quickly simply ends up being irritating as characters talk about the things they’ve been doing rather than letting us actually see them. Even when Rebecca takes her webcam up into the attic, towards the end, the whole experience ends up being infuriating rather than disturbing, as Costanza uses confusion in place of actual scares. Worse still, a handful of moments end up being downright ludicrous, the worst of these being the encounter with Vera Madeline, which is so cheap and hokey as to be laughable.

I wish I could find something more to say about The Collingswood Story, even if it was only to trash it some more. Sadly, though, there just isn’t much of any real interest on offer here. While I can’t fault those involved for having the guts to make this film on such a miniscule budget, the simple fact is that the webcam format is not conducive to effective or interesting storytelling. Take my advice and give this one a miss.

DVD Presentation

The Collingswood Story was shot on video and as a result, unsurprisingly, the transfer is a murky, non-anamorphic 1.33:1 affair. Detail is lacking throughout (although, in all honesty, authentic webcam footage would almost certainly look much worse), and tape noise is often visible at the bottom of the frame. This is not the sort of film that requires all the latest bells and whistles in terms of image quality, but nonetheless there is little positive to say about the transfer.

The audio is plain old Dolby Digital 2.0, and might as well be mono – I certainly didn’t notice anything in the way of dual-channel effects. The quality is okay, but is frequently constrained by the phone-like sound of the webcam microphones, and as a result sometimes makes the dialogue a little difficult to make out. Unfortunately, there are no subtitles.

The only extras are a couple of pages of production notes, biographies for the cast and director, and a trailer.

Michael Mackenzie

Updated: Oct 30, 2005

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