Thanks to some of their recent releases, After Dark Films have made great strides in rectifying the rather variable reputation they had built up. Films such as Prowl and Husk might not have been genre-defying, but they were certainly genre-aware, savvy pieces of filmmaking with much to recommend them. A good film doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel – it’s nice if that happens sometimes, we don’t expect it all the time – but it has to show it can do something decent and pacy with familiar plot developments, and decent script and performance are a must, unless the filmmaker is deliberately courting the ‘so bad, it’s good’ camp. And, as an aside, I wish they wouldn’t do that. Anyway, back to After Dark: continuing in their largely positive vein, they are now about to release Cassadaga (2011), a film with two quite separate but concurrent plot threads, each recognisable to fans of modern horror, and nicely played-out here.
After the tragic loss of her younger sister Michelle, of whom she was also guardian thanks to the earlier bereavement of their parents, art teacher Lily (Kelen Coleman) seeks and is granted residence at a spiritualist community at the edge of town – the Cassadaga of the title, where she hopes to come to terms with her grief. The temptation of consulting a medium gets the better of Lily, though: she attends a séance, and does make contact with Michelle, to her relief, but Michelle’s presence is soon superceded by one much larger and more aggressive. The medium explains to a frightened Lily that a ghost has attached itself to her. To rid herself of it, she has to find out happened to the person at the end of their life; this begins a chain of events by which Lily encounters tell of a murderer on the loose known as ‘Geppetto’ – for his predilection for making human marionettes out of his victims…
As you might gather by that short introduction, Cassadaga incorporates two different types of horror film in one. The first is the idea of the ‘vengeful spirit’, which has been with us since before the days of cinema, features particularly frequently in Far East Asian horror, and formed the backbone of the plot of The Woman in Black (2012), a very lucrative release for the recently-resurrected Hammer Studios. The second is the type of ordeal cinema which people will keep on referring to as ‘torture porn’ – cinema which focuses on grisly, prolonged torment. How Cassadaga avoids feeling patchy is by limiting the amount of screen-time it gives to the cruelty which we know is at the core of the Geppetto plotline. Whilst we know it is there, and is to be taken seriously (with one sequence which is truly ingenious and horrible) we do not have our viewing experience crammed with gore; suggestion is much more important here. The focus goes to the character of Lily herself, and the detective-work she has to do to end what is happening to her, whilst the supernatural elements of the film are usually low-key – a few jump-cuts aside – and the ghost becomes slowly more ‘characterised’ as Lily is able to uncover details of their life, though without ever ceasing to be alarming on-screen. Aiming to incorporate a good deal, perhaps, but Cassadaga does manage to maintain the sum of its parts, and can be tense and humane in equal shares.
Visually, and perhaps as a sign of our times, this movie looks as though it has all been refracted through Instagram – it looks filtered, with high colour/high contrast, which may or may not appeal to you, but you can say that it has a distinctive appearance which certainly does no harm to the overall effect of the film. The locations are superb, and the cinematography makes the most of them – moving from intense claustrophobia to wide-open spaces, with our lead character, Lily, giving a strong performance which underpins the changes in scene nicely. As a Deaf protagonist, she plays the part well, and not once in my opinion does this film descend into tokenism on that account. It’s actually used very touchingly: through Lily’s perspective, we are given an idea of how silent her world is, and how gently proactive she has to be with the children she teaches in order to remind them that she has to see their lips in order to undertand them. When you contrast that with her excitement when she can actually hear her sister during the séance, and how quickly that descends into fright when she can hear…something else, I think that adds a great deal to the film overall. Ultimately, Lily’s deafness allows for an interesting consideration of what a haunting might ‘feel’ like for someone without hearing. If you are used to hearing absolutely nothing, then surely even mundane sounds could be alarming, if they returned suddenly?
My only major gripes with this movie are perhaps petty, brought into sharper relief by the sensitive handling of something like the main character’s deafness: surely, having constructed that so believably, writers Bruce Wood & Scott Poiley could have thought again about the professional boundaries which a teacher would be expected to respect? I had a similar issue with Lucky McKee’s recent film The Woman (2011) on a similar level, and perhaps this is a US vs. UK discrepancy, but would a teacher wear such revealing clothes, or indeed start a sexual relationship with a current pupil’s father? I understand, films sell better with beautiful women in hotpants, but wear something like that to your job in a school in the UK and certainly get involved with a parent and you would in all likelihood get fired – an odd complaint, perhaps, in a review of a film which contains both a crazed killer and a crazed spectre, but sometimes thin excuses for nudity and sex really feel thin, which is a shame, because in other ways the relationship between Lily and Mike (Kevin Alejandro) is intriguing; he doesn’t turn out to be a knight in shining armour who inevitably puts Lily first, for instance.
However, gripes aside, this was a nicely-paced and very watchable modern horror which never felt boring to me. Good ghostly horror is still often overlooked in favour of more gory cinema, so it was good to see a film which strove to integrate supernatural scares with something altogether much more earthly.