In the heart of New England stands a 350-year-old house called The March Carriage. For the last 40 years it's been acting as a Bed and Breakfast, ran by Rose (Judith Chaffee) and her husband Norman. Since the latter's death a year ago, Rose has failed to maintain the place and her niece Gretchen (Rebecca Whitehurst) now feels it's time to sell the place on. Rose will be moved into assisted living nearby.
Enter Dan (Michael Reed) and his wife Jessica (Elise Couture), a young couple keen to buy the place. After being shown around the place by Gretchen they agree to buy it - much to Rose's open chagrin.
Moving in shortly afterwards, Dan and Jessica set about fixing the place up so they can eventually open it to guests. In the meantime, he still has his job in the city - where he unfortunately needs to go for a short while when his boss calls. Considering they discovered a weird seat-like contraption with straps on in the basement on their first night, and woke up to find Rose watching over them on the second night - her cryptic message to Jessica as she was led back to her new home was "Take care of the children" - Jessica is understandably less than thrilled at the prospect of being left alone in the house.
Oh, did I mention that she's also learned via a book in the local library that The March Carriage was once home to a child minder who was hung for being a witch 300 years earlier when the children under her care were struck with a mystery illness ...?
Sure, enough the spookiness escalates once Dan goes on his business trip and Jessica if left alone. Or is she? What secrets does the house harbour, and what effect will their presence have on its latest resident?
Siblings Michael and Shawn Rasmussen made names for themselves in 2010 when they wrote the screenplay to John Carpenter's well-received THE WARD. This afforded them the opportunity to direct another of their screenplays, the result of which was 2013's semi-successful DARK FEED.
Now, a mere two years later, the brothers are back - again directing from an original screenplay. This time they take on the haunted house genre. It's a strand of horror that's been explored rather prolifically of late (THE INNKEEPERS; SINISTER etc) ... so does THE INHABITANTS suggest there's still some ground left to explore in this sub-genre?
For the most part, yes. Its success lies chiefly in the solid writing and capable performances. The Rasmussen's are savvy to what's lacking in 99% of modern horror flicks, and take the trouble to flesh out a couple of lead characters actually worth caring about. I honestly can’t think of anyone else around at the moment who also does this - Mike Flanagan (ABSENTIA; OCCULUS) aside. Consequently, most contemporary horror films are populated by wisecracking arse-wipes or arrogant, surly young models who we actually wish violent deaths upon.
Here, the protagonists' relationship is real and endearing from the start. Dan and Jessica flirt with their eyes as well as their dialogue, they laugh and joke, and share concerns in a manner which allows them to solve them together. They're natural, they're real and they're likeable.
Of course, this becomes hugely beneficial when the shit starts hitting the fan because we're on the unfortunate couple's side. The scares are slowly released, gradually escalating in impact as the simple, thin plot unfolds.
Okay, there are perhaps a few too many scenes that rely on clichéd scare-tactics. Bats fluttering ominously in attics, shadows moving in sinister fashion behind our oblivious leads, creaking doors, spooky music that signposts the scares at every turn ... There aren't many original ideas when it comes to delivering the requisite chills.
But the point is that those chills are provided. The whole notion of abodes with dark histories, leading to hauntings, possessions and the like, has been done to death. It continues to be explored so prolifically because it remains popular (and just look at all the self-proclaimed "paranormal investigators" clogging up Facebook these days). And when done right – as it is here – it remains fun.
Clearly filmed on a very small budget, THE INHABITANTS favours drama over spectacle (though the odd decent special effect is present). The co-directors cite films such as THE HAUNTING OF JULIA, DON’T LOOK NOW and LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH among their influences – and it shows. Personally I find this approach refreshingly traditional. HD camerawork manages to look like film while retaining a welcome clarity to the well-shot, expertly edited proceedings.
All in all, THE INHABITANTS made for a solid proposition. It doesn’t even attempt to reinvent the wheel but tells its eerie tale in a satisfyingly unfussy, assured style. The performances are great, and count a great deal towards its overall success.
THE INHABITANTS is released through Gravitas Pictures on VOD, from October 13th.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Directed by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen|