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Strawberry Estates   B

Sub Rosa Studios

Year Released: 2000
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Ron Bonk
Writer: Ron Bonk
Cast: Jason Reed, Chrissy Frick, Bob Fullenbaum, Lisa Chelenza.

Review by Michael Scrutchin

While watching Strawberry Estates, my phone rang. I nearly screamed. When I answered, my friend asked me what was wrong. "Nothing," I said. "I'm watching that movie I told you about." He asked which one. I said, "The one that's a mock documentary like The Blair Witch Project, but set inside a haunted insane asylum." He asked if it was any good. "Well," I said, "your phone call scared the hell out of me."

And despite being released on the heals of 1999's Blair Witch Project, it holds its own and provides a similarly chilling (if less effective) experience. The film follows an expedition into an abandoned insane asylum, which legend suggests may be resting atop a gateway to hell. University professor Dr. Laurel (Bob Fullenbaum) leads the expedition, while his star pupil Sarah Richmond (Chrissy Frick), a psychic (Lisa Chelenza), and a videographer named Jason Knowles (Jason Reed) tag along and document it on video. The movie is made up of their footage.

But before you start calling this a Blair Witch rip-off, note that writer-director Ron Bonk (The Vicious Sweet) originally shot Strawberry Estates in 1997 with Tina Krause and Debbie Rochon in the cast, then shelved it because he wasn't happy with it. The original version was even covered in Fangoria magazine years before either The Last Broadcast or The Blair Witch Project. Ron Bonk admits that he was worried about someone snatching his idea (or coming up with something similar) while he let his movie sit on the shelf. When Blair Witch exploded and Ron Bonk realized how much the idea behind it resembled his own movie, he decided to rewrite the script and remake Strawberry Estates. The original version still hasn't been released.

And while I don't think Strawberry Estates is quite on par with The Blair Witch Project, it's pretty intriguing and creepy and shouldn't be ignored as "just another Blair Witch rip-off" because, well, it's not. Once the four central characters get set up at the asylum (a genuinely creepy, claustrophobic place filled with dark corridors), a steadily intensifying atmosphere of dread begins to take hold and it's pretty gripping despite being a little too heavy on exposition.

The professor (overplayed by Bob Fullenbaum, the only bad actor here) spends far too much time explaining the history of the asylum, reading from books for minutes on end, which may inspire extended use of the fast-forward button. Sure, the backstory is interesting, but is all of that exposition necessary? I almost fell asleep during some of the scenes with that damn professor rambling on. That's the movie's worst fault.

Luckily, the two characters who take center stage are Jason, the videographer, and Sarah, the professor's star pupil. As played by Jason Reed and Chrissy Frick, they have great chemistry and give the best performances in the flick. There's a scene with the two of them getting drunk and talking that's great: very realistic and somehow touching.

The relationship between Jason and Sarah is one of the film's strongest points, but Strawberry Estates also succeeds in being pretty damn creepy. It even has a good jolt or two. And despite fumbling through long scenes of exposition, writer-director Ron Bonk keeps that sense of dread building throughout, whether the characters are trying to channel spirits with the help of the psychic, discovering cryptic writings on the walls, or gaping at a figure with an ax slowly coming towards them down a long hallway. The film culminates in an intense climactic sequence that involves a deadly game of cat-and-mouse. The chilling final 10 minutes had me looking over my shoulder to make sure I was alone.

If they'd lose some of that dull exposition, Strawberry Estates would be a tighter and even more effective movie. As it is, it's still a decent flick to curl up with and watch with all the lights out on a dark night. Just make sure to unplug your phone beforehand. Trust me.

Review published 10.10.2001.

Follow Michael Scrutchin on Twitter or Letterboxd.

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