STRAWBERRY ESTATES (DVD) Image

A parapsychology professor, his students and a disturbed psychic lock themselves in the haunted Smith Garrett Building – known as the “Strawberry Estates” – in the hopes of documenting supernatural occurrences. While there, the quartet discuss philosophy and the nature of existence before finally getting the proof that they were searching for. They were never seen again and this footage – appropriated by the F.B.I. for their “Red Files” archive – is all that remains of the expedition.  

Ron Bonk’s “Strawberry Estates” is one of those movies that has a history that transcends the final project. Bonk originally began shooting the documentary-style horror film in 1996 with b-movie stars Debbie Rochon and Tina Krause. Dissatisfied with results – particularly his own acting as the smart-a*s cameraman – Bonk shelved the footage and opted to reshoot a few years later with less-familiar actors and a more streamlined, less fantastic and more internalized story. While this final version is not without its problems – particularly the over-acting of Bob Fullenbaum as Professor Laurel and the underacting of Lisa Chelezna – it establishes a dark mood right off the bat and has moments of sheer creepiness by the end. In between, there is a lot of talking that may put off some viewers born and bred on gore. Some of the conversations bring up fascinating ideas about religion, the soul, etc, and there are moments between the two better actors Reed and Frick that are tender and feel very real. And again, there are moments at the end that simply send electric chills up the spine.  

Whatever your opinion of the finished film, the new DVD release of “Strawberry Estates” is packed with cool stuff. And it takes the premise of the pirated FBI archives to a new level as the viewer must navigate hidden menus to access the film and the extras.  

Of particular interest to fans of Rochon and Krause is a post-modern mockumentary of the making of the original version of the film. According to this doc, the final, 2000 version is the actual footage taken by the real expedition, the earlier 1996 footage an ill-attempt to make a low-budget adaptation of the footage, pieced together after Ron Bonk (played by a woman) went bankrupt and was sued by the families of two crew members who died during the filming. This documentary is creepy in and of itself as it weaves tales of a cursed production, hauntingly narrated by Ron’s real-life pre-teen step-daughter. While there are only snippets of the original footage on display – and the bulk of it dedicated to Tom Minion’s hellacious over-acting (Minion actually makes Fullenbaum in the final version seem restrained) – it is fascinating to see Rochon and Krause bring to life scenes that had previously existed for fans only in stills.  

Accompanying the doc are five mini-“Red Files” episodes made under the same premise – misappropriated footage left behind at the scene of heinous and unsolved crimes. According to the multiple commentaries, these five shorts were originally made for cable access television and play out with varying degrees of success. The most difficult thing about these stories fitting together as a series would be finding interesting ways of having the cameras rolling during the alleged “real life” horrors (which was a common complaint among “Blair Witch” detractors). Bonk solves the problem admirably with each segment:  

“Prichard’s Landing” is, for my money, the best of the five, telling the story of an ill-fated movie crew who set out to make a movie about a local urban legend – a legless ghost who haunts a crash-site. The main character is a young actress in prosthetics playing the elusive ghost who comes face-to-face (in an actually scary sequence) with the real-life creature.  

“1717 Evergreen Terrace”, about a disastrous final-taping for a proposed reality show, isn’t bad, has a cool ending, and is notable particularly for the presence of stunt woman (and Spicy Sister) Jasi Cotton Lanier (“WereGrrl”).  

Also effective is “Rocky Mount”, in which a Russian psychic investigates a series of gruesome murders. The most interesting aspect here is that the psychic is constantly being documented by her assistant because her visions can be captured on tape! 

“Bellingham Demon” – the least effective in this reviewer’s opinion – involves the hunt for a Bigfoot-style monster by a streaming website show.  

The final episode, “The Angel of Death”, attempts to tell the story from the point of view of a female serial killer who films her crimes with a tiny camera hidden in her purse. This makes for odd perspective shots – enhanced digitally to bend at the edges of the frames – and long takes of hands (doing terrible things to bodies). The oddness of the angles heightens the unease of this entire segment.  

In all “Strawberry Estates” is a very good movie and an excellent DVD. Well-worth checking out.

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