Directed by Darrin James
Religious people are rarely the good guys in horrors. Save for instances when the villain is old Satan himself, most films with a faith theme or angle have a crooked priest or a dastardly deacon. Now, joining this list, we’ve got The Reverend. Based on a legend from Beaver Island, Michigan (where it’s shot), in Darrin James directorial debut this villainous man of the cloth roams a small community with a panto voice and trusty axe.
It all started on Elder Island, 150 years ago, where this reverend/ self-proclaimed monarch (Brandon) aimed to rule and purify, the land with an iron first. Alas, these lofty ambitions were cut short by his followers, who killed him in a shoot-out. Unfortunately for the descendants of his assassins, and others on the island, he’s back for a relatively predictable revenge. As the body’s stack up, documentary filmmaker Ned (Scholz) and his wife Stacy (Bernadette) ship off to find out more. To meet and greet them are a colourful cast of young lovers, tatty old men, a disgusting sherrif and one pissed off ghost. What follows is a supernatural slasher that will frustrate in places, but ultimately entertain.
On hearing the premise, my initial assumption was it’d be a found footage. However, James has gone for more traditional filmmaking. Traditional is the key word here – Elder Island really is a bit of an oldschool genre entry. Yet thankfully it plays more as a fond homage than a campy throwback. Aesthetically the film’s a strong one, with James showing a keen eye for his glamorous surroundings. The island is both picturesque and menacing, with the thick of the woodlands making for a dramatic backdrop. Elsewhere, the dimly lit bars and seedy motels capture the kind of dark underbelly that a film about community secrets needs – especially one that doesn’t take well to strangers. The all-important flashback scene watches a tad clumsily, with a very low impact kill. Although despite this, the lore is intriguing and the procedural scenes, where characters discuss how to handle the killing spree and what’s causing it, can be thick with atmosphere.
Now when it comes to shoestring films I try not to use their budgets against them – in this case the shots are good, though the effects are obviously not studio level. How much that matters will vary between viewers (although if that sort of thing annoys you don’t see it). Less contestable is that the audio is as weak as the visuals are strong. Whether this is about the initial recording, or if it was poor post production, I don’t know – my technical knowledge isn’t great. But regardless, it sounds choppy throughout with voices sometimes getting muffled and the score often being disproportionately loud. At best, it’s a distraction, that’ll see you constantly adjust your volume levels. At worst it pulls you out of key sequences and diminishes their impact. This issue isn’t helped by an inconsistent soundtrack that sometimes harms the mood built before. In addition to how the words sound, there are also issues with what they are written. Obviously this is not something impacted by the modest costs. And sure, at some points the script is engaging. But for the most part it’s workman like. Many of the characters are one note, and the scattered plotting means scenes can feel inconsequential or undermine the forward momentum. Although this is also harmed by the snail pace of most kill scenes.
Thus when I found out after it was only 80 minutes I was genuinely surprised. The key threat also gets escalated unusually late, with a third act being awkwardly crammed into the last 15 minutes. With a few adjustments to the pacing I think this could have been a much stronger outing. Still, this only comes with experience, and for a first offering this ought to get Darrin James people’s attention. Now if he can get more of their financial backing, and a better script, next time then he may be one to watch out for.
Elder Island is available on VOD