I was really nervous about this one. Here we have a blatant rip-off of the hugely successful though surprisingly un-scary Blair Witch Project. Right down to the title, there seems to be no shame in riding the coattails of a bigger name. Besides, Blair Witch was one of the most disappointing horror movies I’d seen in quite a long time, so how could a brand version be any better?
Much to my surprise - and happiness - The St. Francisville Project is a keeper. The premise is pretty much the same: a group of hip, young folk are sent into a supposedly 'haunted' mansion for the night with video cameras and ghost-hunting equipment. It’s not long before the crazy stuff starts, and our faithful Ghostbusters are lucky enough to get it on tape (cue some creative camerawork.) The resulting footage is then edited together into a documentary-style feature, in which we are led to believe that what we see is real (no comment.)
Basically, Francisville gets right everything Blair Witch got wrong. The history is more clearly defined, with so-called experts giving accounts of the wicked Lady LaLaurie, a Louisianan woman with a penchant for torture. According to legend, LaLaurie had fled capture and, although never heard from again, was rumoured to have moved into the very house we see in the experiment.
Enter our stars. We’ve got a self-proclaimed psychic, a film student, a history student, and a regular Joe. Sure, better planning and preparation would have given us older, more qualified applicants, but I get the feeling the filmmakers were going for a Real World vibe. Hence, there are two women with big boobs and two guys who belong in a Gap ad. Not exactly the kind you’d find doing this sort of thing, but, hey, the idea is to send four unprepared people into the depths of the unknown. After their individual introductions, the producers then train - albeit somewhat briefly - our heroes on handling the ghost-finding gadgets, and then it’s off to the house.
I believe it’s the long intro to the story that allows the movie to work. Unlike Blair Witch, which made mention of a backstory but never really developed it, viewers of this film are properly set for the events - if any - to come. It also sets the slow pace, which is good, because there’s not much going on in the first half. We get the psychic, Madison (named, apparently, after the mermaid in Splash) offering general advice on being in a haunted house, but more importantly, being very annoying. It’s this quality in her that made me debate the film’s authenticity; after all, if you’ve ever met anyone claiming to be psychic, they’re usually as annoying and pretentious as Madison. (She even uses a Parker Brothers Oujia board. Just like the pros, eh?)
As the story progresses, more things start to happen around the house: first off-camera, such as spooky sounds, then right in front of our eyes. We get a fuzzy image of a chair flying across the room. Was this a prank by the producers, or a real ghost event? Who knows. Even without the ghost-caused creepiness, the film’s got stuff to make you squirm: rats, roaches, a dead bird, etc. This movie has such a dark feel to it I couldn’t help but be creeped out. The house, in particular, is a great location (or, set piece = depending on your point of view.)
By the film’s end, you’ll be fairly sure what’s been going on, but first you’ll have to sit through some rather nasty stuff. I always get happy whenever a horror film can actually deliver scares, and this one’s got ‘em in spades. The final ten minutes are pure gold, if the heebie-jeebies are your bag. I jumped, I winced, I walked around to cool off. Like a lot of horror flicks, you might have some questions after the end credits roll, but here that doesn’t matter. You’ll have been spooked enough in the meantime.
Fact or fiction, The St. Francisville Experiment is still a very frightening film which, despite the lack of likeable characters, manages to conjure up a sense of dread and overriding evil. Comparisons to Blair Witch are inevitable, but there’s a chilling authenticity to St Francisville that sets it apart from its better-known predecessor. I ain’t afraid of no ghost!