Dir: Marc Evans. UK-US-Fr. 2002. 95mins.

Ratings-hungry reality television meets The Blair Witch Project in My Little Eye, an effective, low-budget chiller that leaves its distinctive imprint on the scary movie tradition. Manoeuvring skilfully within genre requirements, director Marc Evans achieves an impressive balance between atmospheric, slow-burning suspense and the kind of bloodbath finale that addicts expect. Aggressive marketing should pay dividends, especially in territories like Britain, where the Big Brother phenomenon has been front page news. Momentum Pictures releases there in October after festival screenings in Locarno and Edinburgh.

Critically acclaimed for his previous features House Of America (1996) and Resurrection Man (1997), Evans should finally taste some commercial success with a project where the confidence and composure of the direction are paramount. Cutting straight to the chase, he introduces the five contestants who have agreed to spend six months in a remote farmhouse where their every moment is broadcast for the delight of a select webcam audience. The prize is $1million. The catch is that if even one of them elects to leave, the money is forfeited.

The story begins with a matter of days to go before the money can be claimed. Heavy snow blankets the surrounding countryside, isolation seems complete and all they have to do is just hold their nerve. Naturally, it's not quite as simple as that. The company behind the broadcast appear to be tightening the screws by restricting the food supply and cutting off the power. Soon things are going bump in the night, the line between reality and paranoia is increasingly blurred and the mind games begin.

Applying the possibilities of digital technology to the old dark house scenario, My Little Eye is particularly adept at building a sense of impending doom. Night vision cameras imbue even the most innocent figure with a menacing, cat's eye aura and the use of split-screen shots and web-cam perspectives only add to the sensation that someone sinister may be watching and masterminding every twist and turn. At heart, this still remains a commendably old-fashioned shocker relying on the power of the imagination and a masterful use of sound rather than the expertise of the special-effects department. During the first hour the build-up is sustained through doors slamming, figures appearing from nowhere, words being scrawled on a window and everything conspiring to make the audience jump from their skins without realising the extent of what is going on.

David Hilton and James Watkins resourceful screenplay manages to squeeze the maximum amount of mileage from the situation, adding fresh characters and twists at the very point where there seems nowhere left for the story travel. Even misgivings about the ease and swiftness of some developments are swept aside in the compelling onward march of the story. The duo also manage a robust assault on the voyeuristic nightmare of reality television and our seemingly insatiable appetite for the antics of total strangers. A largely unknown cast acquit themselves well, keeping the finger of suspicion on the move and creating some sympathetic characters.

Kris Lemche gives a notable performance as the most cynical member of the quintet and the one most willing to believe that everything is merely a game designed to part them from the prize money. Series 7-The Contenders and Battle Royale may already have taken some savage swipes at the extremes of reality television but My Little Eye launches its attack within a more obviously commercial framework, delivering the kind of nasty surprises and shocks that promise solid box office.

Prod co: WT2
UK dist:
Int'l dist: Universal
Exec prods:
Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Natascha Wharton
Jonathan Finn, Jane Villiers, David Hilton, Alan Greenspan
David Hilton, James Watkins
Hubert Taczanowski
Prod des:
Crispian Sallis
Marguerite Arnold
Main cast:
Sean CW Johnson, Kris Lemche, Stephen O'Reilly, Laura Regan, Jennifer Sky, Bradley Cooper, Nick Mennell