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Sunday, 14 September 2014

Sader Ridge (2013)

Director: Jeremy Berg
Stars: Trin Miller, Brandon Anthony, Andi Norris, Josh Truax and D'Angelo Midili
This film was an official selection at the 9th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
For some reason I can't fathom, Sader Ridge is a polarising movie. It quickly garnered a great deal of love and promptly won awards on the festival circuit, from audiences and judges, and topped at least one end of year list at a genre site. Yet the film was quickly retitled The Invoking for home release, which usually means that it wasn't capturing the audience it aimed for and so needed a marketing makeover. Its IMDb rating dropped massively to the point that the many naysayers debated how low it could go. Well, I'm in the middle. This isn't close to the worst movie ever made but I wanted a lot more from it than it was able to give me. Most denigrators may have wanted it to get going quicker, because it has a notably slow and subtle build and, especially to viewers used to jump scares every ten minutes, nothing meaningful seems to happen for quite a while. I didn't have a problem with the pace and enjoyed the character building, but wanted more background. At 82 minutes, it could have done with another 8 to nail it down tight.

We're here to watch Sam, who's driving into the countryside to take ownership of a house that she's just inherited from an aunt she never knew in the family she didn't grow up with. She's been raised by foster parents, the Harrises, who have refused to tell her anything about her former life that she left at a young enough age to not remember at all. As you can imagine, that rediscovery of who she was will constitute a good deal of the horror story that she's going to find herself in, but director and co-writer, Jeremy Berg, is eager to avoid clichés. This is really a drama that wends its way through traditional horror territory, where each scene seems to show us something we recognise from other horror movies but is approached from a different angle. Yes, this could be read as a cabin in the woods story, but it's far more subtle than that subgenre tends to be. We even open with four young adults in a car, but this thankfully doesn't turn into found footage. The biggest departure from the norm may be that these characters aren't stupid.

For a young lady who was raised by foster parents, Sam seems well grounded, pondering about her past without being overtly inquisitive about it. She realises that they'll lose cellphone signal on their journey, so sneaks in maps and directions to make sure they avoid the usual wrong turn. The car's in good shape, so we don't get the expected breakdown. Mark, in the passenger seat, is her ex-boyfriend not her current one and we don't feel that they'll be drawn back together even if Jessica dumps him over the phone soon into the film. He's a believable ass, up tight and bitchy but able to apologise. He's bright but socially off a little. The cute couple in the back seat, Roman and Caitlin, aren't a couple, even if he'd dearly like them to be; she really does see them as best friends. Roman is nerdy but not stereotypically so, capturing odd sounds for his library on an old tape recorder. Caitlin wears the nerdy glasses we might have expected of him, but she's a little tomboyish, a little hyper, a little free spirit. It's easy to see their connection.
I found the four of them refreshing. They're not doing drugs in the car, mooning other drivers or bitching at each other. They're believable people with realistically cool dialogue and it's great fun to watch them, even though they're apparently doing next to nothing. Ten minutes in, the wildcard arrives in the form of Eric, the caretaker of the property who clearly remembers Sam even if she doesn't remember him in the slightest. He's the one who found Sam's aunt, peacefully dead in her rocking chair, and he's the one who meets them at the gate to show them the property. And, of course, he's the one who's about to introduce us to some of the background that Sam doesn't remember. Her aunt lived here for fifteen years, but took the place over from Sam's birth parents, James and Ellen Sader, who owned most of the land around the house, including the ridge of the title. Sam even lived here too until she was five years old; she played in the woods with Eric, the kid from a property over, five miles down the road.

Thus far, it's a generally believable piece, very old school in its slow character-driven build, the downside being a few darker scenes and the lack of anything except hints at what we might imagine will be coming later. Clearly there's something in Sam's past that she's blocked out, but it takes no less than 41 minutes, literally the halfway mark, for her to get round to asking Eric what happened back when she was five and for him to not answer. There's a darkness in Mark's background too, based on one offhand comment, and Roman begins to react a little strongly to him getting lost in the woods. It's Roman who gets the first real horror scene too, crouching on the steps to the house too scared to go back inside, pitching some sort of fit about what Sam interprets to be Caitlin's plan to travel for six months before finishing college. Yet, as she calls everyone over, he's not there any more. We're 36 minutes in and suddenly we're in the realm of horror, wondering if Roman is possessed or Sam's having hallucinations. Now's when we need to find out the history of the place, because even if the characters don't think in horror movie terms, we do.

It's certainly the growing shift from banal drama to clear horror territory, a very gradual shift but a strong one, that shines brightest in Sader Ridge. Berg doesn't give us anything flash here to distract us from the build and the characters that experience it. He wore a lot of hats on this project, one of which was as the cinematographer, but as capable as his eyes seem to be from the well framed rural stills that pepper the minimalist credits, he keeps his visual work very subtle. There are no ambitious camera movements, not a lot of cinematic angles and relatively pedestrian editing, certainly no jump cuts. That's fine, as he's not going for either art film or mainstream horror movie. He's going for that old school disconcerting tone as we gradually question what's real and what isn't and he's relying on the actors to ground their characters so deeply that we can tell when they're being themselves and when they're not. That's crucial here for us to figure out what's really going on and that's the strongest part of the film.
Trin Miller manages to remain the focus throughout even though Sam is a rather passive lead surrounded by more outgoing, more dynamic characters. Brandon Anthony is particularly impressive as Mark, as he's given two tones to find and he manages to nail both of them, channelling a less comedic Jim Parsons for one and some Alexander Skarsgård for the other. Josh Truax has a similar task as Roman, a more obscure one in which the two tones are a little less distinct, thus a little more unnerving. Andi Norris also has two tones to find but gets less opportunity to do so. As Caitlin, she's the most obvious character in the movie but her other part is more obscure and it took the end credits to tell me that I'd misinterpreted it. As Eric, D'Angelo Midili only gets one character to play and so he seems a little less dominant, even though he's very capable in what he does. I can't say that every actor reached every note, but the way these five act around each other, three of them juggling two personalities, is to my mind a major success.

I was less sold on the story, which Berg conjured up with Matt Medisch and adapted with John Portanova. To be more precise, I was less sold on where it went. I appreciated the basic concept, the way that it built and the ideas that it threw out, but even after a few viewings, I haven't figured out exactly why any of it is happening. I can't talk in depth about this without introducing spoilers, so I'll try to keep it generic. It felt to me like there were two stories here, one in the present and one in the past, one psychological and one literal, one featuring the characters we're watching and one featuring others. My problem is in how these two stories tie together, because they have to in order to work, but they don't seem to fit. The end result to me was a huge image made up of pieces from two different jigsaws. Now, those pieces may fit together if they happen to be the same shapes, but they're still not from the same picture and thus we can't expect that completed image to make sense. Maybe I'm still missing something but I don't think so.

In the end, I think that Berg had all the constituent parts he needed to make a memorable feature, but he didn't put them together right. He had a capable eye, a strong cast and a good location. He didn't have a large budget, but this didn't need one. What it needed was some more imagination to the camerawork; a bit more attention to the sound and lighting, especially in outdoor scenes where night is falling; and a lot more work on the script. The location could have been used better, but the script deserved to be polished a lot more than it was. It felt to me like the first half should have been condensed to be the first third, the second half sped up to be the second third and a whole new emphatic third added at the end that makes some sort of sense within the larger framework. It certainly deserves to be more than it is and I wonder if what was shot matched what was written. Could Berg have run out of cash in his clearly small budget and so shot a quick ending rather than a third act? Inquiring minds want to know.

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