Monday, 11 January 2010

Review of The St. Francisville Experiment

I wrote this review for a competition in 2004. It had to follow the style of reviews in Sight and Sound, with synopsis and critique. I didn't win.

The St Francisville Experiment (2000)

Louisiana, the present. A film producer brings together four young people, two men (Paul and Tim) and two women (Madison and Ryan), to investigate “America’s most haunted house.” They are given basic training in investigative techniques and discuss their views to camera, while the producer interviews locals who narrate historical events that may be generating the hauntings. The investigators are locked in the house for a night and elect Paul the leader. Madison, a psychic, immediately wants to bless the house, but the others eventually find her preoccupation with her psychic sensitivity irritating. They set out to explore the house, determined to keep together. They realise that the attic has a strange atmosphere and while visiting it see (and capture on film) a chair moving of its own accord. In other parts of the house they see breezes though the windows are shut, and smell odd odours. They hold a séance and communicate with an entity called ‘Charles’. Deciding to bless the house in various rooms simultaneously, the four split up, and as they begin their incantation they become scared. Tim finds a secret passageway and goes to the cellar. Ryan appears to sink through the floor. Paul, in the attic, hears Madison screaming and finds her considerably scratched. In the cellar they discover Ryan strapped to a table and Tim to the wall. As they flee in terror the door slams shut and we see a ghostly mist. A final title says that someone called Charles made an emergency call that morning.

Documentaries on paranormal phenomena are old hat given their recent overexposure on The Living Channel, but in the wake of the success of The Blair Witch Project (1999) and its own precursor The Last Broadcast (1998) it must have seemed a good idea to cash in on the verité approach, with a supposed documentary about four ‘investigators’ given camcorders and locked in a haunted house for a night.

The most interesting part curiously isn’t the investigation but the film’s opening, setting up the scenario and introducing us to the characters. The producer (close kin to Spinal Tap’s Marty DiBergi) tells us that St Francisville is the most haunted location in the US and that “everything you see is real” (which isn’t much). We learn about Madam Lalurie in 1830s New Orleans and her unsavoury predilection for carrying out Dr Moreau-style experiments on her slaves.

We meet our four intrepid investigators and hear what they hope to gain from the investigation, and begin to suspect them of the vacuity that will be confirmed by their later actions. So Tim, the most outgoing of the quartet, proclaims himself to be a “filmmaker” while the accompanying title amusingly tells us that he is a film student; Ryan feels she is qualified to be on the expedition because she is a “history major”.

The investigators-in-a-haunted-house format goes back to the much creepier happenings in The Haunting (1963), and a comparison shows just how The St Francisville Four lack credibility. The Haunting’s Dr Markway may have been sloppy in his methods, but at least he had some: an experienced anthropologist leads a pair with psychic track records, with the owner’s nephew keeping an eye on proceedings. We see character development, a story arc and a tragic denouement. But that’s fiction.

This is supposed to be reality, so it’s unstructured, apart from the first section which uses talking heads to give us the back story, a device clearly cribbed from Blair Witch. We have four twentysomethings who seem to have no experience, apart from the egotistical and extremely flaky earth mother who feels her avowed psychic abilities give her the edge in dealing with the entities lurking on the premises. They receive a brief lecture on investigative techniques from a psychical researcher (who amazingly does not join them for the night) which is so basic that it is clear that they are novices, and who demonstrates gadgets most of which are never seen again.

Instead of developing a plan they just walk round with their cameras, experiencing the occasional strange occurrence (a chair flies across the attic, shackles drops out of the fireplace, and most spectacularly, a chandelier falls gingerly to the floor, remaining remarkably intact) but mostly nothing at all happens. In this respect it may be intended to evoke the delicate ambiguity of The Haunting, but it replaces tension with just enough aimless wandering to fill the modest running time.

We learn that Mme Lalurie did not abuse her slaves at this house but in New Orleans itself, and the location of the investigation is a house outside the city to which she fled after being exposed. If a haunting is more likely in a place of great suffering, they seem to be in the wrong place. Perhaps the viewer is supposed to forget her flight because the attic at St Francisville is indicated to be a psychic hot-spot, with the flying chair linking it to the attic where the unfortunate slaves were found in New Orleans, and the climax, with Ryan fastened to a table and Paul to the wall, evoking their grizzly condition.

Finally, like The Last Broadcast, the fiction that this is fact breaks down. The shots in the final sequence are obviously not being taken by the explorers’ shakycams but by someone else, because they are too busy running about like headless chickens, and we also realise that we have been watching footage from a camera that has supposedly been lost. The Amityville Horror pretended to be real too, but was a lot more entertaining.