by Adam McCabe
Director Anthony DiBlasi kicks off horror film Cassadaga with local powerhouse actress Janine Klein playing a mother who's violently scolding her son for wearing a dress. The distraught boy then picks up a pair of scissors and cuts his junk off. Gross, but OK, you have my attention.
The film centers around Lily, who is recovering from the tragic death of her sister. She decides to reach out to a psychic in the town of Cassadaga (a real-life spiritualist community in Central Florida) with hopes of contacting her sibling for a little closure, but instead she conjures the ghost of a grizzly-looking murdered woman. From there, a sinister plot involving a serial killer named Gepetto, who turns his victims into human marionettes, unravels. Poor Lily (played by Kelen Coleman) is caught in the middle, haunted by this woman until the mystery is solved.
Unfortunately, the film spends so much time drably asking questions on the upswing – so many that I began to wonder if the payoff would be worth the time spent. The short answer: Sort-of-but-not-really-kind-of-I-think-ish?
Let's start with the good stuff: First, I love Kelen Coleman (The Newsroom) and Kevin Alejandro (True Blood) in this movie. Both are star-power charmers doing their best not to act bored-to-death by the script. Also, major kudos must be given to the audio editing in this film. The musical score hits all the right notes, The sounds are all eerie and jarring in the best of ways, and the atmosphere is just right. The same accolades can be given to the sublime camerawork. All of the people involved in the post-production process clearly worked their asses off to make this the best possible portfolio piece they could, given the available talent.
As far as the aesthetics go, I love the absurdity of a psychotic man turning people into human puppets in the middle of a psychic community. Though the fictional version of Cassadaga is rife with the awkward, small-town, wrinkled horror tropes you might come to expect from a film like this (Andy Warhol became a psychic and moved to Florida ... we found him guys), everybody came to work and they all seem excited to be there. I think that's what makes the two leads stand out so awkwardly: They're almost not "indie film" enough. Isn't that silly? It's silly. Horror is silly.
Speaking of silly, I had a hard time believing that Lily was deaf ... Did I mention she's deaf? It's not that she didn't act it appropriately (it did add a welcome level of sympathy for the character), or that the idea of her reading lips felt fake. I think I was simply hard-pressed to justify why that gimmick was there at all. From a scripting standpoint, it just didn't feel necessary, it wasn't a device used to generate tension, and it probably just put an extra layer of work on Coleman – energy that could've been better spent fleshing out the tortured nature of her character. It's a small complaint, but it's worth noting. Just because you can, doesn't necessarily mean you should.
Other Orlando denizens like J. Larose (Saw III, Insidious Parts 1 & 2), Beth Marshall and Dennis Neal make appearances, but the combined effort really isn't enough to make the film come together. The great cinematography, audio editing, makeup and musical score really made me excited for the potential of the movie
and then it somehow turned from the horror flick promoted in the marketing collateral to a ho-hum thriller/mystery about a town with hidden secrets. Honestly, if the film's creators were interested in understanding how to make that kind of thing compelling, they should check out a few episodes of Bates Motel (notepad-in-hand).
It's also worth noting that most of the movie wasn't actually filmed in Cassadaga, Florida. The real town is no more than a few streets long, so they ended up filming outside of the area to make it seem a little more widespread. In real life, Cassadaga is actually a very peaceful spiritualist community filled with fascinating people and palpable energy. This Cassadaga is like a combination of Bon Temps from True Blood and the awkward suburbia of Donnie Darko. I can't speak for the town's residents, but I would feel a little disrespected having this film be a representation of such a fascinating place for those who haven't actually visited.
What frustrates me the most about this effort is that the extreme tonal inconsistency just mars every expectation set by the brilliant opening scene, and it makes the final product seem bloated and underconfident. What it does, it does very well, but I was ultimately left with this sinking feeling that I just had a small handful of great (albeit undercooked) ideas thrown in my face. DiBlasi's film Dread may have won Best Independent Feature at the 2010 Spike Scream Awards. But I think the only awards Cassadaga may walk away with is Best Use of Naked Tattooed Woman in An Art Studio (that was worth a rewind) or Best Botched Fluffy Ending Involving a Ghost With the Magical Power To Give You Closure. Meh.