Directed by Anthony DiBlasi
Perhaps after working as a horror journalist for nearly a decade and a half I’ve become inured to the cinematic scare, or more correctly simply bored by the cavalcade of generic, rote and narratively bland films manufactured in an effort to empty the pockets of genre enthusiasts, programming which seems more often than not interested in appealing generically to a wide demographic than in conveying anything unique, let alone frightening (note to filmmakers: the ‘Dolby jump’ doesn’t qualify). Yes, McDonalds may sell millions of burgers a year, but that’s not fine dining, now is it? Fortunately for this writer, the 2011 Screamfest premiere screening of the feature Cassadaga allayed for me during its running time my concerns regarding the future health of horror, and while not a perfect film, the flick does have a freshly unique voice and is one which more than likely genre fans will want to sink their teeth into.
Helmed by writer, producer and director of the 2009 feature Dread and executive producer of Clive Barker’s The Midnight Meat Train, filmmaker Anthony Diblasi, his Cassadaga is a hybrid – part giallo and part Southern Gothic – and centers around the character of Lily (actress Kelen Coleman), a young, deaf woman and art teacher who, devastated by the death of her sister, retreats to the spiritualist Florida community of Cassadaga in an effort to find herself. This is a horror flick, however, so instead of her much sought after closure, Lily finds herself (after an ill-advised séance following an evening drunkenly arguing the validity of psychics with friends) subsequently and violently haunted by the ghost of a murdered woman as well as thrust into the world of one very twisted serial killer, known only as ‘Gepetto.’
There’s a lot going on in Bruce Wood’s script (he also produced, along with Scott Poiley), and following an altogether shocking and cringe-inducing opening (which deftly sets up the childhood back-story of Cassadaga’s central killer via a pair of seamstress shears – you’ll need to see it to understand), the flick’s off and running. Themes of redemption permeate, as do questions of humanism and self-sacrifice as lead Coleman juggles issues of guilt over her sibling’s death, a burgeoning and complicated romance with EMT, divorcee and father Mike (played with depth by “True Blood”’s Kevin Alejandro), escalating encounters with her ghostly menace and a dubious professional relation with Southern grand dame and Cassadaga head mistress Claire (the brilliant actress Louise Fletcher). Claire’s rather bizarre peeping Tom of a son does little to assist Lily either in any attempted rest and relaxation, and it isn’t long before her life is spiraling out of control, as are the lives of those surrounding her.
Coleman (who physically resembles Monica Bellucci, given her natural beauty) carries the weight of the movie, and she delivers in spades, deftly handling the varied situations in which she’s placed and through such constructing an emphatic, believable and three-dimensional protagonist. Cinematography by Jose Zambrano Cassella delivers as well and effectively drenches the audience in the region’s manufactured gentility, and like Craig Brewer’s Southern-set Black Snake Moan the region’s cloying humid decomposition as well (you can almost smell the clime’s rot in the projection, a rot which too has taken purchase in most of Cassadaga’s principles). Little is what it seems, and such too can be said for ‘Gepetto,’ a character so traumatized and deranged that his uber calm façade is mirrored by a modus operandi of torture and mayhem so inventively perverse that it borders on performance art (this cat makes a grab for the brass ring held by The Silence of the Lamb’s ‘Buffalo Bill’, and Lee Grimes’ FX work is top-notch).
So what doesn’t work? It’s hard to quantify. The flick could be trimmed to an extent certainly, and this reviewer would have liked a bit more fleshing out of ‘Gepetto’ (the character’s machinations are so interestingly repulsive that I couldn’t help but want to know more of how they grew into what they became). The hybrid aspect proves challenging as well. Recreating a giallo in the 2010’s is surely no easy feat. To an extent the original boom of this sub-genre was ‘hit or miss’ at best, as if a chef were cooking drunkenly in the dark and later trying to recall the ingredients. Sometimes it worked (Argento’s Suspiria) and sometimes it didn’t (Argento’s Sleepless), so DiBlasi’s attempt to recreate this dish and make it palatable for modern day audiences unfamiliar with that particular sub-genre is a ballsy move, and one which should be applauded. The horror genre is supposed to take chances, and DiBlasi does that with Cassadaga. Balancing such with a ghost story is a delicate act, however. Both succeed separately but together somehow feel like mismatched dance partners, neither allowing the other to lead. As with anything, the success of Cassadaga will reside in the marketing campaign, and given the flick’s schizo ghost story cum serial killer personality, it’ll be interesting to see how that’s approached (as much as the horror community embraced the amazingly gruesome teaser poster released, that particular piece of art isn’t necessarily evocative of the film as a whole).
The strongest suits displayed by Cassadaga, however, are its characters, all of whom (with the exception of one strange moment involving investigating Officer Bill Hall) react with believable consistency and make logically rational and entirely irrational human decisions, as only emotional humans can. How refreshing it is to experience a modern horror film with rounded characters, and director DiBlasi handles the script’s twists and turns deftly as well as pulling from his actors amazingly grounded performances, while at the same time delivering some exceedingly tense and horrific scenes. There are things in this film you haven’t seen before, and you’ll want to.
Here’s hoping for a successful theatrical release (audiences should experience Cassadaga on the silver screen, given its pedigree) and, without giving anything away, to the hopeful and eventual sequel exploration of the film’s surviving lead, as there’s still more story to be told.
3 out of 5