Overview: A professor takes a student, a psychic, and a loser with a video camera into a haunted house to try to beat "The Blair Witch Project" to the punch.
Directed By: Ron Bonk, 1997.
The Case For: The shaky camera work and piss poor acting gives the impression that this is really some raw footage from an expedition into a haunted house.
The Case Against: The predictability of the events and several actors' inability to keep a straight face just reinforce the fact that this entire thing is scripted and make the shaky camera work and piss poor acting look like elements of a really, really bad movie.
"Strawberry Estates" was released in 1997, two years before its clear counterpart, "The Blair Witch Project." However, that was still not before "The Blair Witch" was shot or before its massive hype began. By that point, there were already articles in newspapers and magazines talking about the independent horror film that would revolutionize the genre by making its story about three kids lost in the woods seem entirely realistic. When Ron Bonk heard that news, he was struck by inspiration. "By golly," he said, "I'm going to steal that idea, or my name isn't Ron Bonk!" And how did the esteemed Mr. Bonk accomplish this feat? Simple. Whereas "The Blair Witch Project" took years to piece together from all of the extra footage and useless bits that the three randomly selected "actors" managed to capture while out in the Burkittesville woods, Ron Bonk skipped all of that hassle by actually putting together a script for his actors and just asking them to pretend like it's all spontaneous, thus eliminating the need to pare down the usable material. Naturally, the end result is a badly-scripted piece of schlock with actors doing the worst job they can muster. Hooray for independent cinema!
Since "Strawberry Estates" came out earlier, I really don't want to compare it to "The Blair Witch Project," but it is impossible to separate the two. I find the solutions is not to talk about how "Strawberry Estates" stole elements from "The Blair Witch Project" and screwed them up, but how the filmmakers behind "The Blair Witch Project" watched "Strawberry Estates" and learned what not to do. The first example of this is right at the beginning of the film. The movie opens with some scrolling text about how this footage is part of a case file about a few disappearances at Strawberry Estates. There is nothing wrong with this in itself, save for the fact that it sets up a few incongruous bits of information. First, the people supposedly disappear in 1999, two years after this movie was made.
So now, with no other context whatsoever to justify this, the audience has to assume that they are any number of years in the future, looking at footage collected back in 1999. Second, this is supposed to be raw footage found in a camera on the scene at Strawberry Estates, but there are frequent in-scene edits throughout the movie. Cuts between scenes are one thing - the camera could have been turned off easily enough - but shot-to-shot edits within a single scene without any jumps in the audio mean that someone would have had to put this footage through a sophisticated editing process. Third, the initial flavor text gives the audience a user name and password to use, as if we were accessing this footage through a computer of some sort. Like the timeframe, this is never given any context, and so it just becomes one more distraction for the audience. Things like that are commonplace in "Strawberry Estates." Characters, bits of information, and other details arise and cause a big fuss, then never appear again. It's really very endearing. Just like Hitler. "The Blair Witch Project" took this opening disaster and refined is a bit. They set the journey to the Burkittesville woods five years in the past and all they said about they the footage is that it was just found. Much simpler, much less confusing, much less like Hitler.
After the confusing and irritating flavor text, we meet our central character, the man who brings everything together, the man from whose perspective we see the majority of the movie - Jason, the cameraman. He's an annoying teenaged snot who is obsessed with his camera and treats his girlfriend like shit. In other words, he's a perfect protagonist. To build up some suspense, Jason treats himself to one of the requisite "asking local people to talk about the scary legend" scenes. He has his group of pothead friends talk about Strawberry Estates. From this scene, we learn that it is a huge house that has been abandoned for a number of years. We also learn that Ron Bonk had to scrape the very bottom of the barrel to come up with actors to fill even the tiniest roles. One of Jason's friends bursts out laughing while trying to keep a straight face through one of his lines. As difficult as it is to imagine, laughing his ass off is not actually that much of a detriment to his performance. Even before he loses his character entirely, he already earns himself a nomination for Worst Actor Ever Allowed Within Thirty Yards of an Active Camera. One of the friends also remarks that no one has ever broken into Strawberry Estates since it was abandoned because there are bars on the windows and the doors are solid steel. In fact, the window bars are mentioned at least a half dozen times throughout the film. Of course, when we see the house, none of the windows are barred and the doors are made from wood. Also, someone has clearly tagged several spots inside the house with graffiti. How I love continuity.
From here on out, Jason is primarily behind the camera. We see what he sees, and although we frequently hear his voice as he makes some assholey comment, we rarely see his scruffy, oily face. Through his vantage point, we meet a couple of the other players in this passion play. And of course, by "passion" I mean "crap," and by "play" I mean "fest." The first is Sarah, a humanities student who nonetheless serves as a personal assistant to a professor of paranormal science. Seeing as how this is not her field of expertise, Sarah does not actually serve any purpose whatsoever to this expedition. There is no earthly justification for her presence there other than to serve as a quasi-love interest for Jason. There are hints that she is also involved with the professor, but the plot never actually gets into that. She is so useless that the only way Ron Bonk could figure out to keep her around is by having Jason magically have two cameras all of a sudden and have Sarah hold one of them from time to time. In addition Sarah, sounds like she's from Wisconsin, so it's an absolute delight to here him pontificating about the existence of an almighty "Gawd." Next comes Professor Jonathan P. Laurel himself, the reason we're all here. Well, I take that back. I'm here because I'm getting paid. I don't know why you're here, but I assume it's because of something you did in a previous life. Professor Laurel is an expert in the field of Paranormal Studies, which means he has a few mundane theories about ghost-type stuff that Ron Bonk struggled to come up with as he was writing the script on a piece of cardboard he found in the dumpster behind White Castle. In fact, most of Laurel's work is really treading on the toes of the religion department at whatever institution we're supposed to think he teaches, rather than dealing with anything that is really within the realm of the paranormal. Laurel is a calm, level-headed guy when he's not screaming and swearing and threatening to kill people in his annoying Brooklyn accent.
Now that most of the main characters have gathered, they set out for Strawberry Estates. Despite being named in the plural, like one might expect for a singles development or a gated community in Florida, Strawberry Estates is actually just one big building, unless you count the barn out back. The scene alternates between Sarah casually answering Jason's questions about this place while constantly saying how she doesn't really know anything and he should really ask Laurel, and Laurel delivering prewritten pedagogical monologues to the camera about the house's history. At some points, the wind picks up too much for someone to be heard and subtitles appear on the screen to fill in the gaps. While this is an extra mile that plenty of other no-budget films would not even go to, it also reinforces one of the film's essential problems. If everyone on this expedition disappears without a trace, at what point does Jason get to the necessary editing equipment to add subtitles to his work?
Nonetheless, this sort of endless exposition makes up the vast majority of the movie. Between Sarah and Laurel, the entire history of Strawberry Estates is revealed bit by bit. Sure, the back story only gets more complex when it suits the events happening to the characters in the current time, and sure some of the bits of the story that get revealed later contradict parts of the story revealed early on, but otherwise it's a very well thought out history. The only really important information is that Strawberry Estates used to be an insane asylum. It served a number of other functions as well, but these are added primarily to make excuses for why things in the house don't match up with their description in the back story. That's right, rather than adapt the story to the house that they actually had to work with, Ron Bonk creates more exposition to fumble around the facts that throw everything off. For example, there are huge glass windows (which are supposed to have bars) in every room, which is the last thing you'd want in an insane asylum. The explanation? After it was an insane asylum, the state made the house a home for the elderly. So, according to the full back story of Strawberry Estates, it was a windowless home for wayward children, then it became an insane asylum, and finally it was turned into a home for the elderly and windows with invisible bars were installed before the place was abandoned. Makes sense to me! Thanks, LSD!
The fourth member of this merry band of wooden imbeciles shows up a little later on. This sorry excuse for an addition to this sorry excuse for a movie goes by the name of Jennifer Barnes and it is just generally accepted that she is a genuine psychic. The characters angrily question the existence of ghosts, hauntings, angels, demons, and all matter of theological debates, but no one makes the smallest comment about this random woman showing up and claiming to be psychic. She is supposedly planning to hold a seance later on to commune with the spirits that surround the house. We also learn that her mother died in the house. So, you know, that's not going to come up later or anything. Jennifer is accompanied by some random guy who physically assaults Jason for taping him. Jennifer tries to convince everyone that her random guy companion has never acted like that before, but it really doesn't make any difference since we never see him again.