The first in what will undoubtedly be a long succession of films inspired by “The Blair Witch Project,” “The St. Francisville Experiment” is actually closer to an extended episode of “Unsolved Mysteries” or a season of MTV’s “Real World” series set in a haunted house. It’s the Roger Corman equivalent of “Blair Witch,” less abstract and formally adventurous, but with a sly, self-mocking sense of humor that gives it levity. Overlong even at scant running time, pic nonetheless has a prevailing sense of good-natured fun that should make it a popular midnight movie and video rental attraction for a long time to come. Theatrical prospects look dimmer, with genre auds a lock, but niche distrib Trimark faces an uphill battle in convincing a wider crowd that this is anything other than secondhand goods.
Much like its predecessor, pic presents itself as a documentary, with four “participants” invited to spend the night in a Gothic, antebellum mansion in a famously haunted Louisiana suburb. The willing quartet consists of a film student (Tim Baldini), a psychic (Madison Charap), a history student (Ryan Larson) and a victim of previous paranormal encounters (Paul Palmer), details of which are never discussed. The subjects are then presented with an array of statistical equipment to aid in ghost-hunting purposes, along with a half-dozen or so digital video cameras, which will be used to document their time in the house.
Though the participants aren’t offered any financial incentive for making it through the night, “The St. Francisville Experiment” does essentially operate as a spinoff of William Castle’s “House on Haunted Hill” for the age of Dogma films and digital video cameras. And the film’s producers — Dana Scanlan and Paul Salamoff, who also appear onscreen — have their feet planted firmly and unashamedly in Castle territory. They preface the entrance into the house with an intro seg that consists of interviews with local residents, voodoo priestesses and the like, encouraging them to speculate about how dangerous this experiment could be. All that’s missing is the buzzers under the audience’s seats.
These interviews, like much of what follows, have a remarkably staged and rehearsed feel. The experiment participants, too, are far too camera-ready to maintain the pic’s attempted sleight-of-hand (there is no director credit, and thesp Baldini is billed as cinematographer). Once inside, however, things begin to go bump in the night in a very intense way, which is accentuated, as in “Blair Witch,” by the grainy, handheld videography of the cast members. At first, the nervous ghost-hunters are scared by little more than their own shadows and the ordinary creaks and draughts of an old house. Then a chair flies across an attic room, lights go out, doors slam shut.
Is this all really happening? Or are the producers just pulling the rug out from under their naive subjects? Suffice it to say that Scanlan and Salamoff hold true to the bang-for-your-buck, vaudevillian inclinations behind the project and that, to a certain extent, they make “The St. Francisville Experiment” into the movie most people expected of “Blair Witch” — less arty, more visceral in its thrills. There is a long stretch of downtime in the film’s midsection, where nothing too scary transpires and the petty arguing of the four principals feels like so much padding. But when these laic exorcists attempt to rid the house of its tormented inhabitants, things kick into overdrive, and the film’s final 20 minutes or so make for a satisfyingly jittery roller-coaster ride.
Still, it comes as a bit of a disappointment that Scanlan and Salamoff so readily go for the Big Fright moments. The scares work, but they make the film ordinary. Prior to that, the filmmakers generate a good deal of fun from the notion that maybe nothing supernatural will happen in the house at all, that the whole experiment could go bust. There’s a lot of deadpan humor and a surprising amount of self-effacing postmodernism at work in the film’s first two-thirds. To an extent, pic suggests one of Wes Craven’s “Scream” pictures as reconfigured by Jacques Rivette.
The cast is exceptionally game. They’re not afraid to poke fun at themselves or the deft editors have assembled the footage in a way that encourages us to laugh at their faux intrepidity instead of just sharing in their terror. But the pic is ultimately undone by its inability to reconcile its two contradictory impulses — to be the next “Blair Witch” while mocking the hand that feeds it. As satire, it feels half-formed, while as straight horror it brings nothing new to the table.