Color, 1999, 99m. / Directed by Ron Bonk / Starring Lisa Chelezna, Bob Fullenbaum, Chrissy Frick, Jason Reed / Sub Rosa (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9) / DD2.0

Forever fated (or is that doomed?) to be mentioned in tandem with The Blair Witch Project, the microbudget supernatural yarn Strawberry Estates adopts the pseudo-verite approach of that indie hit but grafts it to a story better described as The Haunting (or perhaps given its fixation with flame-haired femmes, The Legend of Hell House) with a third act detour into Lucio Fulci territory.

Cited as "Red File 66-095" (part of the director's proposed ongoing series of suppressed horrific video documents), Strawberry Estates begins with a group of Syracuse hipsters discussing the Smith Garrett Building, a.k.a. "Strawberry Estates," a nearby haunted asylum where, according to one previous visitor, a legless female ghost is just one of the disturbing populus. Foul-mouthed videographer Jason Knowles (Reed), grandstanding Professor Laurel (Fullenbaum), plucky intern Sarah (Frick), and psychic Jennifer (Chelezna) are chosen to explore the spooky building, apparently located in the middle of nowhere. While Laurel goes on and on (and on and on and on) about the history of the building, strange events pile up: mysterious noises, creepy writing on the wall, shadowy figures darting in the hallways. As Laurel loses his composure, Sarah must take over as leader of the group and discovers that the building harbors a much nastier secret that goes way beyond a simple haunting.

Essentially a really creepy 70-minute feature dragged out past the breaking point to over an hour and a half, Strawberry Estates is a tough haul in its first half but pays off eventually with some novel thrills and chills. The handheld camerawork is largely effective (similar to the rough and ragged approach of a later asylum horror romp, Session 9) and the finale is undeniably effective; while it's futile to argue whether this is "better" or "worse" than Blair Witch (a completely uninteresting venture once divorced from its effective marketing), at least Strawberry Estates is better than such dire cash-ins as The St. Francisville Experiment. For some reason, all of the actresses are very, very good while the actors range from erratic but occasionally effective (Reed) to downright lousy (Fullenbaum). Frick gets most of the prime moments, though a teary final act camera confessional treads way too far into Blair Witch territory to be coincidental.

Trying its damnedest to pass this film off as a real supernatural document without crossing over into false advertising, Sub Rosa's DVD begins with a tricky menu either leading to the film itself or, through a hidden "Scriptures" feature, to other "Red Files" crafted by director Bonk (who later chipped in on such other indie horror projects as The Undertow). The transfer of the feature itself looks fine for what it is, alternating between anamorphic digital video and, sparingly but effectively, full frame camcorder footage distorted to fit the same frame. Stereo audio is very loud and effective when it needs to be, with some nice ambient surrounds kicking in during the second half. You also get an elusive but sometimes interesting audio commentary that explains the production of the film, but sometimes the facts get a little confusing and tangled up... due to reasons discussed below.

The biggest bonus is also the least interesting; "The Story Behind Strawberry Estates" tries to pass of the film as real "found footage" that was unsuccessfully translated into a fictional feature film (in fact, Bonk started the film as a standard narrative project in 1996 but resurrected it in its current form three years later after the release of Blair Witch). Behind-the-scenes footage and clips from both versions are included, though the attempt to ape the utterly creepy pseudo-documentary from the Blair Witch DVD prove more frustrating than tantalizing. Far more worthwhile are the "Red Files," vignettes clocking in around 20 minutes in which the director tackles everything from ghosts to serial killers. For the record, these include "The Bellingham Demon," "Angel of Death," "Rocky Mount," and the excellent "Pritchard's Landing." In an Easter Egg, Bonk pops up to explain that the Red Files were intended to be unrelated horror records with only one minor character appearing in more than one of them. The disc also includes trailers for both versions of Strawberry Estates, a photo gallery, and a cast list, as well as hidden DVD credits.

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