Don’t believe what your parents tell you, kiddies: horror films are a tough sell. Of course, they’re usually cheaply made, often times feeling like they’ve been shot on-the-fly in some abandoned warehouse or condemned property, but where does the inspiration to tell a particular story come from? Therein lies the greatest challenge. How do you capture lightning in a bottle? Do you explore ghosts, goblins, or the supernatural? Are you dealing with some rabid serial killer with a penchant to torture his victims before he offs them from our plane of existence? Do you spend a fortune on buckets of blood, or is it your chosen weapon of distinction little more than psychological horror?
You have to have something that gets both the audience and the potential victim’s adrenaline pumping, and I suspect somewhere in that complex formula the minds behind CASSADAGA lost their way just a bit, relying on drama when most people showed up expecting to be scared out of the socks!
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
A deaf art teacher, Lily Morel (played by a winsome Kelen Coleman, looking an awful lot like Mila Kunis’s younger sister) is forced to come to terms with the accidental death of her young sister. Seeking refuge, she travels to the small community of Cassadaga, where a private school hires her to instruct its young students. But instead of finding peace and quiet, Lily finds herself possessed by the spirit of a recently murdered woman, and that spirit wants nothing more to make use of Lily’s gifts in order to achieve whatever justice remains against her elusive attacker – a man with a dark desire to transform his victims into life-sized marionettes.
Uneven and heavy, CASSADAGA begins with a brief vignette involving a young cross-dressing boy, his angrier-than-usual mother, and a desperate (and necessarily bloody) act of self-mutilation. From there, the story segues into yet another brief vignette, this one meant to introduce our main character – the lovely Lily Morel – as well as her sister and the circumstances of their mutual tragedy. Then the tale morphs into (finally!) the main plot which involves Lily’s attempts to kinda/sorta either ‘get on’ or ‘start over’ her life sans the driving force in her life (the dead sister); she travels to a small town – requiring another bit of exposition – in Florida that just so happens to be the epicenter of psychic activity … and then there’s another dead girl’s story … and then …
Do you see where this is going?
I can appreciate a story that comes with several layers. In fact, those are generally the films I tend to gravitate toward, appreciate the talent of a gift screenwriter who longs to create a fully fleshed world wherein whatever truth and/or consequences indigenous to the plot get exposed through the creative light of day. But, for Pete’s sake, scribes Bruce Wood and Scott Poiley (both with some modest credentials in the world of screen horror) pack way too much atmosphere into – come the end – is little more than a ghost story. Granted, some of it was needed in order to distinguish CASSADAGA from the next ghost story in the marketplace, but it’s been my experience that horror films work best when they’re lean, mean, fighting machines. As the completed film stands, this one is too dense for its own good, leaving the scares few and far between.
That complaint aside, I have to give kudos where kudos are earned. Director Anthony DiBlasi (this was just his second feature) attacked each and every scene cinematically as if it had massive importance to the overall tone of the picture; while some of it understandably goes on too long (contributing to an already bloated script), it’s still admirable work. Kelen Coleman brings a young, freshness to her portrayal of Lily, and against all odds she makes viewers care about this struggling young woman and what she’s going through. Lastly, Kevin Alejandro puts in a good turn as a single father trying to put wrong those things awry from his own life choices; similarly, you care about him and the relationship with his daughter if you’re watching close enough – given that most folks expected a horror picture, I’m not sure they did.
CASSADAGA (2011) is produced by Poiley Wood Entertainment and Cassadaga Film Production. DVD distribution is being handled through Archstone Distribution. As to the technical specifications, the film is smartly made, offering up a quality sight and sound experience strengthened by some better-than-average cinematography. As is too often the case with smaller pictures, there are no special features to speak of, and (as always) I think that’s a huge miss: some production interviews would’ve cost nothing to add to this slim package.
RECOMMENDED. The problem is that a fine workmanship quality to the direction doesn’t always translate into a quality motion picture experience, and, as much as I wanted to enjoy CASSADAGA, in the end I felt it raised far more questions than it legitimately answered in its 1:52:00 run-time. As is the case with so many features these days, do stay in your seats because, after the credits, there’s a brief coda that attempts to give hope for those who enjoyed it of a follow-up, though one certainly isn’t needed based on the story presented here.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Archstone Distribution provided me with a DVD copy of CASSADAGA by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.