Color, 2002, 82 mins 6 secs.
Directed by Mike Costanza
Starring Stephanie Dees, Johnny Burton, Diane Behrens, Grant Edmonds
Cauldron (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD), Anchor Bay (DVD) (UK R0 PAL)
Two decades before the world began communicating en masse through Zoom and even way ahead of Skype, The Collingswood Story is an early found footage film made in the wake of The Blair Witch Project and its inevitable flood of imitators. However, what sets this one apart by several miles is the fact that it's largely confined to video chat screens, anticipating by far not only the prevalent technology to come but also much later screen-confined (or "screenlife") horror films like Unfriended and Host as well as non-genre titles like Searching. Essentially an elaborate creepypasta story sprung to life, the film is fascinating to watch today both for the time capsule qualities of the tech limitations at the time (still on dial-up back then, of course) and the escalating eeriness that can be wrung out of this format.
Just before Halloween, Rebecca (Dees) has just rented an old house in Collingswood, New Jersey so she can attend Rutgers, far away from her Virginia-based boyfriend, Johnny (Burton). To deal with the separation, Johnny sends her a webcam -- which is where our story begins after a brief, spooky prologue. At the suggestion of his friend Billy (Edmonds), whom we soon learn dated Rebecca for a little while, Johnny decides to give her an usual virtual birthday present: a $50 online psychic reading from Vera Madeline (Behrens), a spooky medium in sunglasses. What seems like a goofy gift turns sinister when Vera seems to know more than she should, which prompts Johnny to contact her separately. Then he learns that Collingswood is known for its horrific past involving a murderous cult in the 1800s founded by a man named Alan Tashi, whose signature was a creepy little totem called a Halloween shaker. Johnny, whose own ethics turn out to be sketchy in the way he manipulates Rebecca's cam, digs further and finds out that the house she's in was the site of a multiple murder atrocity in 1997 -- part of a past that could have her in mortal danger when Halloween arrives.
Surprisingly absorbing for a film confined to a handful of cams, The Collingswood Story manages to open up its world a bit with some injections like brief nightmare sequences and digital cam recording outdoors. It's a smart move that keeps the film from feeling like a long desktop video, and the two leads give solid performances that start off endearing and get more terrified as the film progresses. As with any good found footage film, it has to lead to a scary finale in a dark location with our main character in peril, though even here that gets flipped on its head a bit with a macabre stinger ending. The achievement is made all the more impressive when you consider the fact that it was actually produced in 2000, with a lot of trickery involved to pull off what would be very simple tactics now-- such as having the actors perform their roles to Hi8 digital cameras for better quality rather than opposite each other, which makes the performances all the more impressive. Taking a page from Blair Witch, the film also made use of early online promotion to get the word out, initially with a fake site for Vera; in fact, the film's dedicated site is still hopping today.
Though it's been available for streaming, The Collingswood Story had a very minimal presence on physical media for a long time with the U.K. getting a DVD (now long discontinued) from Anchor Bay. Cauldron Films gave the film its global Blu-ray debut in 2021, first as a limited edition (featuring a limited slipcover and two double-sided mini lobby cards) and then as a general retail one. Given the mixture of formats here it looks quite solid, with the "remastered for Blu-ray" credit meaning it looks less compressed than DVD and appears to have better hi-res rendering of some elements like the credits and elements like web browser screens. The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 stereo track is also in good shape for a film that's largely dialogue driven, with the spooky ambient additions creeping in slowly along the way to nice effect. Director Mike Costanza provides a new audio commentary that spends the first 40 minutes or so covering the production in great detail, describing how he got it off the ground, found the cast members, and came up with the crafty method of shooting it to look a lot slicker and more professional than a real webcam call would play out. After that he runs out of gas and starts describing everything happening on screen, so you can bail at that point without missing much. "Collingswood: Behind the Story" (14m2s) is a very solid behind-the-scenes featurette, mostly consisting of interview footage with Costanza as a framing device for some great bits like original raw footage of the actors performing their roles with the director feeding the other dialogue back to them. It's also fun seeing how they snuck into an after hours recording booth to do some ADR work, complete with some hysterical screaming. There's also a little bit with Dees being interviewed in 2005 at the Fearless Tales Film Festival by Calum Waddell, which is also presented in its 5m1s entirely including a great bit about her early childhood role as a bully in Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers. Also included is a 2006 interview with Burton and Edmonds (10m20s), who are in a great mood as they cover the making of the film including the fact that they never got to perform opposite each other in person after the initial rehearsal process. Finally the disc wraps up with the original trailer and a 1m41s gallery of continuity and set Polaroids along with some call sheets and other odds and ends.
Reviewed on November 23, 2021