Jason Knowles (Jason Reed) is an aspiring young videographer renowned in his local area for winning an amateur filmmaking contest judged by Oliver Stone.

Knowles is hired and paid in advance to film an expedition led by local professor Jonathan Laurel into a disused asylum known as Strawberry Estates.

The expedition consists of Knowles, Laurel and two women - the psychic Jennifer, whose relative died within the Estates, and Sarah, Laurel's top student. Their mission: to uncover the secrets of many bizarre events that have happened within the grounds of Strawberry Estates over the years.

The film opens with a written disclaimer advising that the ensuing footage is all that was found after the ill-fated expedition, and is in actual fact a leaked FBI file.

Next, we see Knowles interviewing three friends of his on video, asking them what they have heard about the titular building. Each has a creepy legend to recant - and Knowles is warned that bad things happen to those who stay on the Estates �

Soon afterwards, Knowles, Laurel and co have made their way to the abandoned asylum and are subsequently filmed bickering, flirting, debating topics such as God vs science (a particularly arduous scene to sit through!) and eventually cracking up and turning against each other as things start to get a little spooky.

Directed by Ron Bonk (founder member of Sub Rosa studios, and director of PERMANENT WAVES), on the surface this appears to be a painfully plagiaristic attempt at recreating THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. The young crew venturing into unknown territories with their video camera, in search of demystifying legends of ghosts etc; the hand-held home video 'documentary' footage that we're supposed to believe was found after the crew disappeared; even the way one female character addresses the camera up close and sobs apologetically towards the end � it's all here!

But STRAWBERRY ESTATES actually began filming in 1997. Which, of course, suggests that it predates it's more famous counterpart. Unfortunately for Bonk, he discarded the project for some time until finally deciding it was strong enough to film in 2001.

Consequently, the whole thing reeks of BLAIR WITCH opportunism.

But this is easier to get through than BLAIR WITCH. For one, the camera work is a lot more sedate. The acting (from the youthful cast) is generally good, and for the most part plausible. And whereas the trio of relentless squabblers in BLAIR WITCH actually made you WANT bad things to happen to them, these folk appear to have a modicum of social skills making them much more tolerable!

And the denouement here equals BLAIR WITCH's for downright creepiness.

Having said all that � the dialogue here is often terrible. And this a film that is HEAVY on dialogue. Laurel is an unconvincing, unlikeable tit, and the 'possession' of one character is very ill-advised. Shameful, in fact!

Ultimately, this will only appeal to those who can accept shot-on-video productions, and are willing to tolerate a slow-burning amateur creepy story with virtually no gore or frights. Oh, and are we supposed to believe this is a documentary?!?!

The anamorphic widescreen picture is - for a SOV production - handled well in the transition to DVD; no qualms to quibble over.

Audio is 2.0 and remains nice and loud, and free from hiss or dropout, throughout.

Sub Rosa have as usual graced their release with a bevy of interesting extras.

First off, you have a commentary track from Bonk. It's an interesting track, going into many technical details and occasionally lamenting over the movie's troubled production. I imagine it would prove especially fascinating for all the wannabe filmmakers out there.

A 25 minute 'making of' featurette makes for a good watch (better than the main feature?!) but it's debatable how accurate this is as it's played very much tongue-in-cheek. Having said that, the numerous rough scenes culled from the original aborted 1997 version of the film are definitely worth a look. It's a shame, though, that this is presented in such a mockumentary style - it only serves to further liken Bonk's effort to BLAIR WITCH �

Five bonus shorts are basically deleted scenes that you may or may not wish to pursue, depending on your tolerance of the film itself.

Menu pages prove to be interesting: you have to use your remote control to highlight invisible options on-screen. Quite novel.

A couple of trailers for the film (it looks better on these than in full - ain't that always the way?) and a photo gallery round proceedings off rather nicely.

Presented in a keepcase packaging and Region 0 NTSC encoded, Sub Rosa have made an effort with this release. But then, they always do � for an independent label they really are largely unsung for all the great extras-packed DVDs they're putting on the market.

But it's the film that will (or should) ultimately either draw you in or turn you off. Personally, I found STRAWBERRY ESTATES to be an interesting film with many strengths in it's own right, but undone by it's unfortunate comparisons to BLAIR WITCH and a few added weak links along the way (it's too long; the acting fails in some areas; it's too talky; the social debates are cringe-inducing �).

Hmmm. If you've yet to discover the delights of the Sub Rosa roster, then do. But I recommend you check out SCRAPBOOK or THE UNDERTOW before considering this relatively anaemic offering �

For ordering details visit the Sub Rose site by clicking here.

Review by Stu Willis

Released by Sub Rosa
Region All NTSC
Not Rated
Extras : see main review