Unrated - Cinema of the Extreme

In keeping with successful horror mockumentaries such as CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1979) and THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999), as well as the lesser known LAST BROADCAST, Sub Rosa Studios’ STRAWBERRY ESTATES is a fictional film that tries to convince us that the admittedly preposterous events - by ‘real’ standards, anyhow - are edited together fragments of actual, fly-on-the-wall footage. The story concerns a college expedition led by the obsessive Professor Laurel into the supposedly haunted Smith Garrett House, now called the Strawberry Estates (because strawberries used to grow there). He takes with him videographer Jason Knowles (to record everything), star pupil Sarah, and mystic Jennifer Brahms - whose mother died within the sinister walls - in order to unravel the mystery.

STRAWBERRY ESTATES - actually conceived before the overhyped BLAIR WITCH - contains the same infatuation with ‘reality’ as other films in its genre. Consequently, we are witness to numerous clumsy attempts to (untruthfully) tell us that we’re looking at found documentary footage; that real people filmed real events. The film, then, begins badly, as we are witness to Jason’s mundane attempts to frame the camera (in order to test it out for the expedition). Just to ram the point down our throats, we then are privy to a scene in which the camera - that we will be looking through for the film’s duration - is dropped on the floor. As with the other films we view the world concentrated through the lens of an obsessive cameraman (he even films himself having sex with Sarah), in order to justify showing us various details that are necessary for the viewer (but unnecessary for the college project). And as we would expect from having seen BLAIR WITCH and the second half of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, camerawork is consistently shaky, hand-held, and unstable.

As with its generic ‘siblings’, the film ‘blurs’ the fine line between reality - by means of its ‘realist’ format - and fiction - based on the fact that none of this is in any way real. And although the in-your-face photography gives us a great deal of proximity to onscreen happenings, we cannot escape the notion that the film is guilty of some hefty borrowings from many a supernatural horror film; we are unable to believe in the integrity of the ‘raw’ footage. The scientists-in-a-haunted-house-with-recording-equipment scenario harks back to the popular British TV movie THE STONE TAPE (1972), as well as Spielberg’s uneven POLTERGEIST (1982), to name just two. When the characters become locked in the building Sarah develops a sickness and becomes covered in welts that remind us of a similar scene from John Carpenter’s PRINCE OF DARKNESS. As a result of this intertextuality, knowledgeable and cine-literate viewers will thus not allow themselves to be drawn in to the film. And because of the constant self reflexivity on display - for example Professor Laurel’s lengthy monologues to the camera, as well as conversations between the cameraman and the characters - we are not allowed to even suspend disbelief and enjoy what is obviously pure fiction.

By the mid stages of the film - if you hadn’t already figured it out - anyone with half a brain will have realised that the film isn’t real. Aside from the unconvincing acting provided by Laurel’s histrionics, the film becomes more and more ridiculous. Psychic Jennifer performs a séance and ‘sees’ hundreds of ghosts walking around a corridor, apparently emerging from Hell. Shortly afterward, the ever inquisitive Laurel comes up with the priceless line "Is there really a war going on between Heaven and Hell?" (And he’s not joking!). When we finally see armies of the undead - with DEMONS style glowing eyes - prowling around the corridors, events within the film has become so far fetched it’s unbelievable. (In its gradual move toward being more obviously fictional, and thus abandoning ‘reality’ in a way, the film can be compared to THE LAST BROADCAST; the key difference, however, is that this latter film switches discourses: at the end it abandons the predominant pseudo documentary format and takes on a 3rd person window into the world view for the climactic murder set piece).

Aside from the above flaws, the film is pretentious. Characters have protracted discussions about faith and religion, basically boiling down to bread and butter questions such as ‘Is there a God?’ and if so, ‘why would he abandon us and let us suffer’: questions that have been addressed provocatively and interestingly in Bergman dramas such as WINTER LIGHT (1962). But whereas Bergman seamlessly integrated the theological questions into the actions, gestures and dialogue of his characters, STRAWBERRY’s discussions hold up the narrative and come across as forced and unconvincing, almost an afterthought. And all these little discussions succeed in pointing towards is the fact that Hell on Earth is imminent. Needless to say, it appears extremely ill advised for a dumb B-movie to address Big Themes, and many will feel that this merely functions as deux ex machina for the climactic ‘invasion’.

In spite of this, there is some fun to be had. The filmmakers display an effective use of offscreen space; during one of the protracted dialogue scenes viewers will be surprised to see a baseball-bat wielding ghost jump out of nowhere! Editing is also highly effective toward the end of the film, in which a frantic Sarah and Jason - both peering through their camera lenses - vainly attempt to search for each other; the film alternates their increasingly shaky, desperate perspectives and manages to create suspense very well. The film milks maximum cinematic potential from its Digital Video format, as can be seen when Jason and Sarah hide in the darkened rooms and corridors, spying on and avoiding their deranged, possessed antagonist by means of a night vision lens. All in all, and to put it bluntly, if you can get through the first hour (a difficult task), you could eventually find yourselves enjoying this one. Flawed, but (eventually), good, trashy fun.

Mathew Sanderson

Directed by Ron Bonk

English language
USA / 1997 / 100 mins

‘The Story Behind Strawberry Estates
The Movie’ Featurette
Director’s Commentary
Short Films
Photo Gallery

A Sub Rosa DVD release

Region 1 / NTSC / Widescreen 1.85:1 anamorphic / mono


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