Home Video Hovel: Cassadaga, by Matt Warren
Director Anthony DiBlasi’s Cassadaga—out this week on DVD and Blu-Ray—is a perfect example of the kind of well-made horror movie inevitably doomed to purgatory on home video. Its gory thumbnail art will forever haunt the periphery of on-demand streaming menus, frequently glanced at but always passed over. It’s about as good as a B-grade fright flick can be before being good enough to level up to something relevant to either A) mainstream audiences (case study: The Conjuring) or B) insular, craft-centric genre nerds (case study: The Innkeepers.) But if lurid gore, ghosts, and serial killers are your bag, Cassadaga gets the job done efficiently and entertainingly.
Cassadaga opens with a lurid cold open setting up its antagonist’s gender-bending backstory, recycling familiar elements of films including Halloween, Psycho, Sleepaway Camp, and Dressed to Kill. It’s more Criminal Minds than Brian De Palma, but DiBlasi does a good job of establishing a heightened tone of semi-camp that makes the ostensibly upsetting material go down a lot easier than it probably should. It’s nothing original, but it’s slick and effective—something that could easily be said about the film as a whole.
Elsewhere, we meet Lily (Kellen Coleman), a deaf art teacher still reeling from the tragic death of her little sister. Kübler-Rossing it and looking to jump-start a new life, Lily accepts a scholarship at a creepy Southern-Gothic women’s academy in the spiritualist Mecca of Cassadaga—a real-life unincorporated community in Central Florida boasting (allegedly) the highest per capita number of psychics and clairvoyants in the world.
Inevitably, the elevated metaphysical juju of the town combined with Lily’s deafness-aided extra-sensory abilities put her on a collision course with “Geppetto,” the murderous, marionette-obsessed mama’s boy glimpsed in cold open. It’s not long before Lily’s attempts at reinvention—including a budding romance with good-guy EMT/single dad Mike (Kevin Alejandro)—are mothballed in order to commune with ghosts, investigate cold-cases, and stop the perverted puppetmaster’s burgeoning killing spree.
Cassadaga is told with great economy and lucidity. It’s well written, if unambitious. Characters are cleanly developed, and their behavior and relationships always make sense. The actors are good—particularly Coleman, who anchors the film and proves a likeable, relatable heroine (if not entirely convincing as an actual deaf person.) The failure here, if there is one, is that every element of the film is competent without being especially unique or original.
Cassadaga also suffers somewhat from a misappropriation of narrative elements. Lily’s deafness is a missed opportunity. DiBlasi ignores the opportunity to use a subjective camera to place us inside his Lily’s head, to show us how a non-hearing person might actually experience these events. Nor does he use the character’s disability as a jumping-off point for suspenseful set pieces à la Wait Until Dark or Rear Window. It’s a disappointment. Also, the ultimate impact of Cassadaga’s native psychic phenomena on the film’s plot is roughly the same as Danny Torrance’s ESP is in The Shining.
Movies like Cassadaga can be frustrating for progressive horror fans itching to see the genre they love pushed into more challenging artistic waters. But to folks who just want to throw something spooky on the DVD player to satisfy some ancient and inexplicable need to experience fear, Cassadaga is a destination worth visiting.