Review: Cassadaga (2011)

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Cast: Kelen Coleman, Avis-Marie Barnes, Kevin Alejandro
Director: Anthony DiBlasi
Country: USA
Genre: Horror
Official Trailer: Here


Editor’s Note: Cassadaga is now open in limited release and on VOD

Cassadaga, of course, has missed its chance to be mentioned on At the Movies, but a convenient early stage scene gives us an adequate indication at least of the introduction it might have merited as one character recounts the plot thus far to another. Sat in opposite seats half-facing the camera, the characters expound exposition with an earnestness that might almost make us forget this is information each already knows. It’s such sloppy sequences as this, falling foul of the kind of concerns for audience engagement that tend to occur only to storytellers not entirely in touch with—or trusting of—that audience, that make the movie not half the intelligent effort it likes to think itself.

The formulae that delineate horror narratives are all-too-often treated with more respect than they deserve; Poiley and Wood’s resolve to essentially lop them in a blender and hope for the best is admirable, however inelegant

cassadaga_2011_3If it were even half, it might be very intelligent indeed: Scott Poiley and Bruce Wood’s screenplay is an occasionally sharp but always self-satisfied foundation, opening on an opaquely ominous prelude of traumatised childhood that strives to invite interpretations it will imminently undercut. That’s an effort that continues throughout, as the simple horror premise of a blind woman moving to a new town in the wake of her young sister’s death meanders through various subgeneric setups, straying here into a haunted house movie, there into a supernatural slasher, elsewhere into torture porn extremity territory. Deliberately—and sometimes even delightfully—invoking tired tropes only to tie them together in unexpected ways, Poiley and Wood construct their story in an almost haphazardly trial-and-error method, introducing and excising new elements as they see fit.

And why shouldn’t they? The formulae that delineate horror narratives are all-too-often treated with more respect than they deserve; Poiley and Wood’s resolve to essentially lop them in a blender and hope for the best is admirable, however inelegant. Their mistake is in never centring the shifting register on a character any more original than the stories they seek to enmesh. Keen though Kelen Coleman’s performance may be, her Lily is too arbitrary a character, and her drama too wanting in weight, for the film to be about anything more than its own structuralist experimentation. And albeit intentional, the remarkably unremarkable nature of the constituent plot strands leaves that experimentation more interesting conceptually than in its execution. Cassadaga emerges, if not a typically boring horror effort, a collage of boring beats from many of them.

Patrons returning from a bathroom break at pretty much any point in Cassadaga will have to be forgiven for making to leave again in the mistaken belief that they’ve slipped into the wrong screen, such are the movie’s incongruous efforts to be everything all at once.

cassadaga_2011_4The resultant film is a soporific slog, enlivened only occasionally by director Anthony DiBasi’s knack for a suspenseful sequence. One scene, arriving at the approximate midpoint of the movie, has Lily caught mid-snoop and forced to hide beneath a desk beside the legs of her would-be-killer. Taking full advantage of Dani Donadi’s effectively atmospheric score, DiBasi here crafts an appreciable sense of peril all the more impressive for the cardboard cut-out this character is. He shows himself here for the success he might easily be with a script more committed to making use of the mechanics of horror than just taking them apart. For like any over-eager scientifically-minded kid with two much time on their hands, Poiley and Wood delight too much in deconstructing this machine to be able to remember, come time, how to put it back together.

Patrons returning from a bathroom break at pretty much any point in Cassadaga will have to be forgiven for making to leave again in the mistaken belief that they’ve slipped into the wrong screen, such are the movie’s incongruous efforts to be everything all at once. The egregious overstretching that comes of its need to wrap up the story on each of its extraneous narrative levels sees that the film adds the insult of length to the injury of looseness. And then, of course, there is the central set piece summarily spoiled by the marketing material, serving as the grand finale of sorts to this mild masala and also its grand indictment: despite its self-important airs, Cassadaga is just the same old exploitative excess.

[notification type=”star”]30/100 ~ AWFUL. Despite its self-important airs, Cassadaga is just the same old exploitative excess.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.