Thursday, October 29, 2009

Halloween Week: The Collingswood Story directed by Michael Costanza (starring Stephanie Dees, Johnny Burton, Diane Behrens)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2003. Reprinted with permission.

The Collingswood Story (2002). Screenplay by Michael Costanza.

Note: With all the buzz surrounding the newest microbudget horror film Paranormal Activity, I thought this was a good time to bring some more attention to another film that didn't get much attention when it came out, but that is equally successful at a similar ambition: to be both thrifty and scary.

It has been a long time since a horror film actually scared me. I grew up watching them, so apart from the occasional disturbing image, it is rare for a film to have a physical effect on me. I've just seen too many. The last one to do so was The Blair Witch Project in 1999, and then The Collingswood Story did it — it actually gave me goosebumps, which I was certainly not expecting.

Winner of "Best Indie Film" at the 2002 Horror Review Awards, The Collingswood Story concerns Rebecca (Stephanie Dees), who has left her hometown — and her boyfriend, John (Johnny Burton) — behind to go to college in Collingswood, New Jersey. For her birthday, John sets them both up with "phone cams" so they can communicate with each other. Phone cams are presented as identical to Web cams with one important difference: you have to dial the person's telephone number in order to contact them.

Collingswood starts off gently, with John and Rebecca talking to each other about their relationship, the distance, and the insecurities it brings up. Having experienced a long-distance relationship myself, it was easy to identify with the situation and the characters' feelings.

That same night, John phones his friend, Billy (Grant Edmonds), who seems to exist only to provide some sophomoric comic relief, and the phone cam number of various phone cam "freaks," including an elderly exotic dancer. Also on this list of gag calls is psychic-for-hire Vera Madeline (Diane Behrens), whom John recommends Rebecca call on a lark.

When Rebecca calls Vera, she finds out more than she expected. Vera knows all about the town of Collingswood and its past, including a series of cult-related murders orchestrated by their leader, Alan Tashi, and a particularly gruesome set that occurred in the house where Rebecca is staying.

From here on, The Collingswood Story provides quite a ride.

Rebecca's laptop allows portability (courtesy of an extra-long phone cord), so viewers are treated to shots of different rooms in the house as well as her recordings of trips around Collingswood searching for the infamous Lees Lane and the home of Alan Tashi. The portability also allows her to climb into the darkness of the attic and broadcast to John as she searches for evidence of the murders. This climactic scene is a 20-minute crescendo into terror. The fact that we pretty much know what to expect and are still carried along makes writer/director Michael Costanza's feat all the more admirable.

The Collingswood Story is the kind of film that thrives on a small budget. The inability to show violence (due to expense) is part of the draw because what happens is unseen and all the scarier. Consider the following titles: Psycho, Halloween, Blair Witch — all movies made on the cheap, and yet always in the top of fright fans' favorites lists in terms of scariness.

It is most often in the scripts that the quality lies. And The Collingswood Story is certainly no slouch in that department. Costanza has captured simple and natural dialogue, allowing the actors to give fully realistic performances, and a plot that flows directly from the characters' actions.

Costanza has managed to gather a terrific cast. Diane Behrens' role as Vera Madeline is the film's main source of information, and Behrens' performance is key to its credibility. Stephanie Dees as Rebecca is adorable and engaging. Her role is the heart of the film and without her complete believability, none of the rest of The Collingswood Story would stick.

Johnny Burton is solid in his supportive role, eliciting sympathy in his eventual helplessness. Even the phone cam ecdysiast is funny for his short time onscreen. Grant Edmonds' turn as Billy is the only real setback, as he tries for complete obnoxiousness and thus eschews all subtlety. The contrast to the others is painfully noticeable, but he is fortunately onscreen little.

All these factors combine in making what is bound to become one of the great indie fright flicks — certainly the best I've seen lately. Though the ending has struck some as confusing and/or unbelievable, it worked for me. Simply put, if it's been a long time since a movie affected you the way a horror film is supposed to, give The Collingswood Story a try.

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