Rachael steps out of the car, mysteriously stalled over the railroad tracks on Munger Road in Bartlett. She holds a cellphone.
"Guys," she says, "Corey just sent you a message."
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"Munger Road"★ ★ ★
Starring: Bruce Davison, Trevor Morgan, Hallock Beals, Lauren Storm, Randall Batinkoff, Brooke Peoples
Directed by: Nicholas Smith
Other: A Freestyle Releasing release. Rated PG-13 for language and violence. 86 minutes.
"What?" Scott asks.
"What'd he say?" Joe asks.
Rachael tells them.
Run? From what? And why?
We don't know, and that's the point.
This tidy exchange marks the kind of atmospheric dread that St. Charles filmmaker Nicholas Smith plants and nurtures in his impressive feature film debut "Munger Road," shot on location in Bartlett, St. Charles and other suburban locations.
I don't want to oversell "Munger Road" as the greatest horror film since "The Exorcist." Many times it reveals the unseasoned nature of its young cast and crew in small, telling ways. (A police officer oddly directing a search team with just his fingers sticks out as the sorest.)
But as a first feature effort from a budding new filmmaker stuck with a budget smaller than the nucleus of an atom, it's an amazingly effective scare fest that knows the best parts to borrow from the giants of the genre.
Two St. Charles students named Corey and Scott (Chicago actor Trevor Morgan and Hallock Beals) get a handicam so they can go out with their dates, Joe and Rachael (Brooke Peoples and Chicago actress Lauren Storm), to the tracks on Munger Road.
There, according to legend, the ghosts of children killed in a horrible bus accident will push their car off the tracks to prevent another tragedy.
Corey and Scott dust the car's bumpers with baby powder to get hard evidence that the suburban myth is for real.
Their dates do a lot of eye-rolling. The guys clearly want to scare the girls for fun.
But when they try to leave, the car mysteriously dies and the four kids are marooned in the middle of nowhere.
Back in St. Charles, Police Chief Kirkhoven (Oscar nominee Bruce Davison) and Deputy Hendricks (Randall Batinkoff) have more on their minds than the four missing students.
Kirkhoven becomes alarmed at the news that a St. Charles serial child killer has escaped from a crashed prison van and may be headed back home to attend to unfinished business.
Meanwhile back on the tracks, the poor students are stuck in a claustrophobic car for hours until Corey decides to venture out to get help.
He disappears into the darkness. Unexplained noises begin to surround them.
The real fun -- for us, anyway -- begins.
Smith, a film graduate from Chicago's Columbia College, understands how to use the power of the unseen. As confirmed in "The Exorcist," Smith knows the scariest thing on the planet is a closed door.
"Munger Road" doesn't break much new ground, but it covers the old ground nicely.
From John Carpenter's "Halloween," Smith appropriates the escaped killer plot, plus pays homage to the opening-scene tracking shot by having Kirkhoven investigate a dark house through a point-of-view camera.
Smith also lifts the swinging ceiling lamp effect from Hitchcock's "Psycho." He uses -- only briefly -- the making-a-documentary premise from "The Blair Witch Project" which it stole from "Cannibal Holocaust."
Even the legend of the school bus accident was previously used in "Return to Cuba Road," shot by Palatine-based CNGM Pictures on location in Barrington where the burned ghosts of children haunted a possessed man.
So, don't go to see "Munger Road" for originality.
Go to witness how Smith and his young conspirators (including composer Wojciech Golczewski with his edgy, alarming score) transform the sleepy little community of St. Charles into the scariest Illinois town since Michael Myers roamed fictional Haddonfield.