The Collingswood Story (2002) is the First Screenlife Movie

This is the second installment in our “Psychotronic Cinema” series. (What is psychotronic cinema?)

The Collingswood Story has received something of a new lease on life with the continuing trend of “Screenlife” movies. Films which take place entirely on digital screen spaces find their origin point in 2002 with Collingswood. Though not Screenlife in the “pure” sense of taking place entirely on a screen (it’s maybe at 95%), Collingswood makes use of emergent technology in a relatively novel way – blocky early-2000s desktop aesthetic and all. A pandemic-era film like Host owes a great deal to this film, whose video chat technology amplifies a mood of isolation and loneliness.

Separate the film from its novelty, though, and Collingswood does not have much going on.

It doesn’t help that large stretches of the film are extremely tight close-ups on the lead staring at a screen. The monotony of scenes are broken up by different shot “lengths,” where the camera zooms in from the desktop view to a slightly lower-res close-up view on the caller. It isn’t anything particularly dynamic. While I’m no fan of Unfriended and its use of opening and closing windows to hide edits and generate a sense of movement on the otherwise static screen, some more use of the actual desktop here would do the film some good. Although, I’m not sure what that would look like with ’02 tech. I suppose she could play a game of solitaire or minesweeper.

The story of Collingswood Story is fairly straightforward. Rebecca (Stephanie Dees) is a college student in a long-distance relationship with her high school boyfriend (Johnny Burton). As the couple video chat on her birthday, Rebecca finds herself caught up in the haunted history of the town of Collingswood and the house she is living in. John hires a medium to perform a seance with Rebecca, and all sorts of supernatural occurrences follow.

This is a very talky film which struggles to maintain tension as the supernatural possibilities of this premise creep (too slowly) to the fore. There are one or two tame, clunky jump scares and occasionally ominous fades to black. But aside from a subdued but effectively eerie performance from Diane Behrens as the Internet medium, the suspense just isn’t there. I’ll give it some credit for ending on a couple of striking images, which, while not worth the wait, did pleasantly surprise me.

I couldn’t find much out there regarding the initial release of The Collingswood Story. It’s listed everywhere as a 2002 movie, and Moviefone lists its theatrical release as January 1, 2002 (but this was a Monday, so I’m pretty sure the January 1 bit is inaccurate). But from what I can tell this had something of a festival circuit run in 2005 followed by a home video release. Then, not much happened with it until 2021, when it received a Blu-Ray release and an Amazon Prime streaming option (it’s now available on Shudder). For some time, finding this on streaming was near impossible. I tried finding it some six years ago when I was writing a piece on the history of found footage horror, and I hit a dead end.

Now, it has a Blu-Ray release and a home on streaming where it will be marketed directly to its intended demographic. Timur Bekmambetov’s wild dream of a world where 50 Screenlife movies are released annually may not have come to fruition (yet), but his and others’ passions for the format has incidentally led to this little microbudget needle resurfacing to the top of the Internet haystack. It’s a story fitting of a movie so reliant on the Internet.

As a final (entirely unrelated) aside, I was hoping that the Michael Costanza who wrote and directed this was the same Michael Costanza who sued Jerry Seinfeld in 2001 over the Seinfeld character of George Costanza. I don’t know why I hoped this. I just thought it would be a nice button to end on. But they’re two different Michael Costanzas who both worked in the industry in very different capacities.

The Collingswood Story post-dates The Psychotronic Video Guide, but the Guide has some “cyber horror:” e.g., Brainscan (1994, page 77), The Lawnmower Man (1992, page 327), Arcade (1992, page 26), Nightmare Weekend (1985, page 398).

As always, thanks for reading!

—Alex Brannan (Twitter, Letterboxd, Facebook)


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