"Big Brother" meets "The Blair Witch Project" in "My Little Eye." Basically a single concept worked every which way, this no-star low-budgeter about a group of youths slowly terrorized in a remote farmstead remains true to its genre origins while building a genuinely creepy atmosphere and several major shocks.

“Big Brother” meets “The Blair Witch Project” in “My Little Eye,” a spry little chiller which starts out looking derivative but soon develops a style of its own that puts both progenitors to shame. Basically a single concept worked every which way, this no-star low-budgeter about a group of youths slowly terrorized in a remote farmstead remains true to its genre origins while building a genuinely creepy atmosphere and several major shocks. However, following its world preem at the Locarno fest, pic’s B.O. fortunes could go either way: Without critical support, smart marketing and major ad-pub coin, the movie could prove just too dark and nasty to capture a wider public beyond horror cultists.

Production is another inventive entry in the varied slate of Working Title’s low-budget arm, WT² (“Billy Elliot,” “Ali G Indahouse,” “Long Time Dead”), and a belated vindication of the talent of Welsh-born helmer Marc Evans, whose sophomore movie, Northern Irish gangster movie “Resurrection Man,” undeservedly sank without a trace four years ago. The sense of cold fear in that pic’s horrorscenes can also be found in “My Little Eye,” which is a very different kettle of fish from WT²’s previous scarefest “Long Time Dead.”

Stripped-back exposition introduces the five characters who’ve won places on a 24-hour Webcast in which they have to live together in an isolated house for six months. Prize is $1 million — but if anyone leaves, everyone loses.

Rapid montage introduces: nice prudish Emma (Laura Regan), blond Ivy Leaguer Matt (Sean CW Johnson), sassy wannabe actress Charlie (Jennifer Sky), cynical pot-smoking Rex (Kris Lemche) and slightly nerdy Danny (Stephen O’Reilly). Pic immediately cuts to them in the house as the six-month stint is about to end.

Situated somewhere in North America — and actually filmed in Nova Scotia — the building is a large old-style farmhouse surrounded by wire fencing in a forest clearing. Outside, snow covers the ground; inside, webcams cover every inch of the building. With few exceptions, film is shot from the cameras’ perspective, with the sound of the lens motor always heard and much of the dialogue having an artificial, cranked-up quality consistent with the pic’s “I Spy” tone.

Initial scenes of the quintet sitting around appears to lose ground on the tight opening. However, before the second reel has finished, the shocks start coming, as the soundtrack delivers the first of several well-executed surprises and the group treks upstairs with a flashlight to find the cause. During this sequence, Matt quickly establishes himself as a man of decision.

Next turn of the screw engineered by the Webcast’s unseen producers is a letter that purports to announce the death of Danny’s grandfather. Soon after, the words “Sick Bitch” are found written on a frozen windowpane. Then a hamper is left for the group containing a bottle of champagne and a loaded gun.

When Emma wakes up with a surprise in her bed one morning, and then — at only the 40-minute mark — an extra character, Travis (Bradley Cooper), arrives at the door asking for shelter, the film tightens its grip — but also raises the question of where on earth the story can go for a further 50 minutes. That’s answered fairly soon by a rather nasty twist at the hour mark which leads to full delivery of the genre goods in the third act.

It becomes clear early on that the movie’s strength lies not in the dialogue or psychological conflicts but in the overall arc of the direction. The film is totally a director’s piece, with helmer Evans essentially repping the unseen Webcast company as he plays games with the protagonists and audience.

Use of a webcam p.o.v. throughout is surprisingly non-tiresome Script’s one major misstep — a too-sudden attraction between Charlie and Travis — is soon forgotten amid the careful escalation of atmosphere.

The initial “Big Brother” inspiration is quickly left behind as the pic milks genre from haunted house movies to rural America psycho-horror. Buffs will spot nods to classics like “Cape Fear,” “Psycho,” “The Haunting” and “Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” but the film’s homogenous look and feel, with considerable attention paid to the soundtrack (both effects and score), put “My Little Eye” beyond the realms of homage or pastiche.

Performances are fine enough, and grow slowly with the picture, with all thesps — but especially Johnson and Regan — hitting their character marks. Only O’Reilly’s Danny seems shortchanged by the script.

Entirely shot on DV and transferred to 35mm, the movie has a fuzzy, 16mm-blowup look that chimes with the subject matter. In tune with the wintry setting, colors are cold throughout, adding to the slow accretion of chill. Editing is snappy without becoming slick.

My Little Eye

U.K.-U.S.- France

Production

A Momentum Pictures (in U.K.)/Universal Focus (in U.S.) release of a Universal Pictures, StudioCanal, Working Title Films presentation of a WT² production. Produced by Jonathan Finn, Jane Villiers, David Hilton, Alan Greenspan. Executive producers, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Natascha Wharton. Co-executive producer, Christopher Zimmer. Directed by Marc Evans. Screenplay, David Hilton, James Watkins; story, Hilton.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor prints, DV-to-35mm), Hubert Taczanowski; editor, Marguerite Arnold; music, Bias; production designer, Crispian Sallis; art director, Laura McNutt; costume designer, Kate Rose; sound (Dolby Digital), Jim Rillie; stunt coordinator, Branko Racki; assistant director, Stuart Renfrew. Reviewed at Moving Picture Co. preview theater, London, July 22, 2002. (In Locarno Film Festival -- Piazza Grande; also in Edinburgh Film Festival -- Late Night Romps.) Running time: 95 MIN.

With

Matt - Sean CW Johnson Rex - Kris Lemche Danny - Stephen O'Reilly Emma - Laura Regan Charlie - Jennifer Sky Travis Patterson - Bradley Cooper Cop - Nick Mennell
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