Cassadaga

Cassadaga

***1/2

Reviewed by: David Graham

Attempting to fuse two of the most diametrically opposed of current horror trends, director Anthony DiBlasi follows up his muddled Clive Barker adaptation Dread with a potentially confused yarn that's more rewarding than it might sound on paper. Cassadaga mixes the by-now overly familiar lank-haired spooks of J-horror with the exploitative suffering of the much-derided torture porn genre, while also borrowing heavily from Argento's Giallo blueprint and Fulci's Southern Gothic shockers. That it manages to do so while building unusually grounded characters that the audience actually cares about, makes it something of a breath of fresh air.

Lily is a young teacher who has moved to the town of Cassadaga to make a fresh start following the death of her beloved little sister. The town turns out to be a hotbed of superstition and occult belief, nicknamed 'The Psychic Capital Of The World'. A date with her adoring star pupil's single and keen father takes a dark turn when they decide to try to contact Lily's sister through a spiritualist. The seance instead brings her into contact with an angrily intrusive spirit, which soon begins disrupting her life day and night. As Lily tries to figure out what the spectre wants from her, she becomes aware of a series of unsolved disappearances that may be connected to the sprawling mansion where she rents an outhouse. However, she soon realises that her investigations could put the relationship she has cultivated into jeopardy, not to mention her very life.

The opening scenes doff a respectful hat towards cult fave Pieces, with a child performing some DIY surgery that's sure to elicit gasps from unprepared audiences. This prologue is somewhat misleading however; despite the lurid subject matter, the remainder of the film is nowhere near as trashy as you'd expect. It is actually a classy, well-considered affair for the most part, taking time to establish a heroine with layers of intriguing character detail that are neither piled on for obvious sentiment nor merely abused as a means to hang suspense set-pieces upon.

It's refreshing to see a young woman in a horror movie with various potential weaknesses who still emerges as a strong, upbeat individual; Lily's deafness is never seen as a disability, while her undoubted attractiveness never conflicts with her relatively believable intelligence. Even her romantic subplot with Kevin Alejandro's hunky workman is handled with admirable restraint, the characters poignantly playing off each other's vulnerability, building to an intimate moment of physical contact in a recognisable situation that's intensely sensual.

As with most directors who try to balance several opposing styles, DiBlasi can at times feel like he's bitten off more than he can chew; the supernatural elements often come as a narrative slap to the face, but there's no denying how derivative they are, while the glimpses of the murderer's lair are perhaps too few and far between to seem integral to the main storyline. The latter scenes do at least offer up a memorable modus operandi for the villain; the way he assembles and plays with his victims like still-living marionettes is truly unsettling, and DiBlasi deserves credit for avoiding obvious sensationalistic grue. Sadly, any real threat the killer may pose is squandered by the fact that we never get to know any of his prey as characters. After the novelty has worn off, Saw fans will likely go running back to Jigsaw for more sick and twisted kicks.

Back to the positive side. The whodunnit angle is actually pretty engaging, while several supporting characters come to play more interesting parts in the plot than it initially appears they will, including the legendary Louise Fletcher (of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest) as a kindly landlady with a few skeletons in her closet. Kelen Coleman endows Lily with a pragmatism and earnestness that are easy to relate to and empathise with, just about seeing the script through some slightly lumpen exposition near the start and crass emotion-wringing towards the end.

The climax proves a little underwhelming, with DiBlasi's hitherto highly stylised camerawork and colour palette suddenly fading into a flat workmanlike rhythm for what should have been a breathless finale, but at least most of the loose ends are satisfactorily tied up, which is more than can be said of many more fashionable horror films of late. It all adds up to a curious stew of disparate ideas that hold together through some fine acting, convincing characters and the thick, oppressive atmosphere of a well-captured location. Open-minded horror fans who welcome some sincere human drama along with their death and devilry should enjoy paying a visit to Cassadaga.

Reviewed on: 09 Mar 2012
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A deaf art teacher struggling with bereavement seeks refuge in a spiritualist community only to encounter a ghost bent on vengeance.
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Director: Anthony DiBlasi

Starring: Kelen Coleman, Kevin Alejandro, Louise Fletcher, Lucius Baston, J LaRose

Year: 2011

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: US

Festivals:

Glasgow 2012

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