The Collingswood Story (Cinerebel Studios, 2002)

It has been a long time since a horror film actually scared me. I grew up watching horror films but apart from the occasional disturbing image, it is rare for a film to have a physical effect on me. I'm just too jaded. The last one was The Blair Witch Project in 1999 and now The Collingswood Story has done it -- it gave me goosebumps, no less.

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 present, 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 an 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 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, everyone involved is in for a ride.

Rebecca's laptop allows portability (courtesy of an extra long phone cord) and so we are treated to shots of different rooms in the house as well as her recording of trips around Collingswood searching for the infamous Lees Lane and the home of Alan Tashi. This 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 scene is a 20-minute crescendo into full-blown terror. The fact that we know what to expect and are still carried along -- breath shortened and abdominals clenched -- makes the filmmakers' feat all the more admirable.

I believe that this kind of film cannot be made with a large 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 fright power. It is most often in the scripts that the quality lies. And The Collingswood Story is certainly no slouch in that department. The dialogue and plot are simple and natural, allowing the actors to give fully realistic performances.

Speaking of the actors, for his first feature Costanza has gathered 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' 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' Billy is the only 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. Simply put, if you like to be scared, you are going to be quite satisfied with The Collingswood Story.

[Craig Clarke]

The Web site includes some captivating clips from the film and a page to buy the DVD.
The related Vera Madeline page is particularly informative regarding the backstory.