HOUSE OF SALEM (2016) BY JAMES CROW

Reviews

Year: 2016
Director: James Crow
Writer: James Crow
Starring: Andrew Lee Potts, Jessica Arterton, Jack Brett Anderson, Liam Kelly, Leslie Mills, Dean Maskell, Anna Nightingale, Nalân Burgess

Synopsis:
A group of kidnappers become a child’s unlikely protectors after discovering they have unwittingly been set up to take part in a satanic ritual. As they begin to uncover the truth of the house they find themselves trapped, they must battle demonic forces and uncover a legacy of over a hundred years of murder in the name of the Devil

Review:
Coming from experienced short film British writer/director James Crow, HOUSE OF SALEM represents his sophomore feature effort and continues with the rough theme of the occult which could be seen in his debut CURSE OF THE WITCHING TREE.

The film opens in familiar horror territory; a beautiful babysitter (Nalân Burgess) and a young child who clearly has either suffered some early trauma or has some mystery in his past. It is never just a normal kid perhaps with a tough paper round.

Early on we learn that the child, Josh, suffers from nightmares if he does not take his pill and rather unsurprisingly he deceives his babysitter into believing he has taken these bringers of peaceful sleep. Now this action also serves another purpose as we, the viewer, are thrown into uncertainty about whether what we are about to view is real or all in Josh’s head.

Whichever is the case it does not matter and we are not given the time to overthink for very quickly an armed gang, dressed in scary clown masks infiltrate the house and kidnap the boy leaving the babysitter unconscious on the floor. 

After being taken to an isolated rural estate house, Josh starts to hear voices, but not only ones that want to protect him but ones that do not have his best interests at heart. At this point the film slowly develops more supernatural overtones and what was only hinted at before begins to dominate the proceedings as the waking nightmare becomes more vivid. These moments are more than competently handled aiding the unsettling possibilities of both the house and those behind orchestrating the kidnapping. 

Objectively speaking however the opening act is a little slow for my tastes and suffers from inconsistency in terms of quality which reduces the impact and arguably the interest of what has the potential to be an engaging slow burning occult mystery.

Thankfully however by the second act the script begins to find its rhythm as more breadcrumbs are laid and engagement generated in regards to the real mystery behind the safehouse that the gang find themselves holed up in at the request of an unknown client.

Soon all around the property a mysterious symbol begins to appear with increased frequency as do the hallucinations of not only Josh but also those who took him. During this middle act HOUSE OF SALEM really hits its stride managing to create some genuine moments of tension and intrigue but unfortunately the film seems unable to capitalise on this resulting in a final act that was executed perhaps not as well as it could or should have been.

As with many low budget films the locations are limited and although not directly, HOUSE OF SALEM is comparable to that of a siege movie, Perhaps think in terms of the hospital in the terrific American film THE VOID, although much less expansive and a much lower budget. 

One aspect of this almost siege like environment is that it places by emphasis on the acting, simply by default more than anything. This is both a strength and weakness of HOUSE OF SALEM as the few moments of action are unfortunately weak while the acting, which takes precedence is a little inconsistent although Jessica Arterton, Leslie Mills and Dean Maskell put in commendable performances while Liam Kelly in his first credited role as the boy Josh makes a strong start to his acting career.

Despite its promise HOUSE OF SALEM is unfortunately neither claustrophobic or brave enough in its depiction, I am talking both in terms of script and visuals, resulting in an inconsistent movie in which moments of inane and weak dialogue are followed by genuine tension. The pieces for success are all there and James Crow clearly knows his stuff leading me to suspect that these lulls and moments of inconsistency are down more to the transition from short to feature length production.

HOUSE OF SALEM is one of those small independent films that hovers around in distribution limbo for a couple of years after being made, before finally being granted a long overdue release. Thankfully though it manages to avoid being dated or missing a trend and so this delay has not or should not affect its release.

Overall there is still enough to recommend about this sometimes effectively tense movie to make it worth your while picking it up  but if you are looking for an independent occult horror film might I recommend the Italian films CUSTODES BESTIAE by Lorenzo Bianchini or SHANDA’S RIVER by Marco Rosson ahead of this one.

HOUSE OF SALEM is receiving a home entertainment (DVD) and digital release courtesy of Left Films and Wild Eye Releasing coming October 1st 2018 if you are interested.

SHANDA’S RIVER (2018) BY MARCO ROSSON

Reviews

Director: Marco Rosson
Writer: Nicola Pizzi
Year: 2018
Starring: Marcella Braga, Claudia Marasca, Margherita Remotti, Diego Runco

Synopsis:
A professor, Emma, travels to the small Italian town of Voghera, in order to study the story of the witch Shanda killed in the 16th century. Soon after arriving however Emma finds herself trapped in a nightmare where she forced to relive the same day, the day of her death, over and over again.

Review:
SHANDA’S RIVER opens in the 16th Century, as a terrified woman is pursued and strangled in the woods and the quality immediately struck me as being much better than I had expected.

This sequence over and we jump to the modern day as Emma, a history professor writing a piece on women who were sacrificed in inquisitions style hunts, arrives into the small town of Voghera in order to meet a tour guide named Julia.

Visually the film does not take long to start incorporating historical flashbacks into action, hinting at perhaps some occult ritual sacrifice or injustice, almost as if Emma is remembering a past life. To further add to this, as viewers, we learn that these scenes are tied to the river in which the tour is to incorporate but Emma is not the only one interested in the areas history.

Daniel, a Croatian Investigative Reporter, has paid his way onto the tour at the last minute and appears to have in mind a story about contemporary ritual killings somehow being linked to the site. These sorts of hunches never really work out well do they.

On the way to the tour we get given the Shanda backstory, but soon out in the rural countryside things appear to go wrong as the car breaks down and some hooded assailants appear and our tour participants find themselves waking up tied to a tree – here things start to go a bit WRONG TURN or at least they appear to start to. For writer Nicola Pizzi clearly had other ideas as he deviates from the normal taking things into time-loop territory along the lines of FINAL DESTINATION (stay with me), GROUNDHOG DAY and perhaps more recently and relevant HAPPY DEATH DAY – with this twist marking something quite different than the occult mystery or slasher that I had expected from the trailer.

As you can tell from these cinematic references there is an element of premonition and repetition that comes into play, and for our lead character Emma, hell certainly is repetition. However every time her day restarts she learns a little more, but with this gain in knowledge she appears to be losing a little bit of her sanity as she begins to question are any real consequences when the end result is the same, much like Francesco in DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE, leading to a realisation and choice of what to do in order to free herself from this curse of simultaneously not being able to die yet being condemned to be killed over and over again.

Director Marco Rosson is smart in how he portrays this, and although he has plenty of opportunity to show blood and violence, he does not over indulge and that is to the benefit of the film as it allows the narrative to maintain a strong narrative flow rather than becoming reduced and stifled by constant bloodshed that adds no value to the film.

Smartly written and cleverly constructed, SHANDA’S RIVER shows great maturity by the filmmakers and a sense of intelligence that is not often displayed (or rather successfully conveyed) in these types of productions. It would not surprise me if the film was picked up for a bigger budget remake (and on a personal note a new title for marketing) giving it the resources it deserves.

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Now let me clarify the film looks very nice, and it is terrifically edited but there are a few moments that show its independent status. Although inconsequential in the grander scheme of things viewers will notice a few audio level issues (most notable in some dialogue scenes) and a few cinematography issues which have very little to do with the skill level of the crew but are common amongst all films of lower budgets.

SHANDA’S RIVER was a very different film than I had expected and all the better for it. A clever, intriguing plot that manages to seamlessly incorporate genuine tension, scares and intrigue; however I am still baffled by the animal magnetism that journalist Daniel appears to possess. That remains the unsolved mystery.

Version reviewed: 

I watched an online screener with English audio. SHANDA’S RIVER was released on Friday 16th March 2018 on blu-ray and DVD and can be ordered from the European Cine Museum store and other online outlets.