Thursday, November 01, 2007

Boston Fantastic Film Festival: ­Cherry Valley

Ugh. I hate punting festival films, but I just could not come up with a thing to say about The District!. I think I drifted off once during it - it was the middle of a four-movie day after staying up late to watch a ballgame on delay the night before. It was also one of those deals where the comedy was coming from such an unfamiliar place as to just not register with me.

Still, The District! was far from bad; it just kind of got blotted out by being between Exiled and Cherry Valley (and Zebraman). Cherry Valley is one I think is going to fall through the cracks unfairly; it's something that seems like it would have mainstream appeal, but it's tough to imagine studios taking a chance on it. Maybe the Sci-Fi channel would pick it up. I think it would be neat to see how well it fit into the After Dark Horrorfest; that's the sort of event where a larger audience may give it a chance.

Cherry Valley

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 October 2007 at the Brattle Theatre (Boston Fantastic Film Festival)

Cherry Valley is undeniably amateur hour, which is part of its appeal. Even if it had the intention of being anything other than sincere, the budget isn't there for much in the way of fakery. That lack of pretense won't necessarily convince anyone that the houses of Cherry Valley, New York is actually haunted, but it might just do a better job of sending a thrill up the spine than its fictional counterparts.

The movie starts with a supposedly haunted house owned by Jeremiah Newton; three of his students at NYU (including director Patrick Steward) go up there to check it out - setting up cameras, tape recorders for EVP, all that good stuff. They may detect something - after all, staying overnight in an unfamiliar house after a long drive and being primed with stories will certainly put you in a receptive mood - and do some follow-up with people in the town. What they find out is that while not many locals have heard of a ghost in Jeremiah's house, many have stories about their own house, of that of their neighbors. Further research leads Steward & company to learn about an eighteenth-century massacre, and a group of "devil worshipers" who used a place on the outskirts of town in the 1970s.

It's probably not too much of a spoiler to say that the filmmakers don't capture indisputable proof of the supernatural on-screen, but even skeptics might find themselves suitably impressed by the sheer volume of stories they dig up. The stories told on screen come from a variety of people, from teens to seniors, men and women, small-towners and college-educated outsiders, so there's not enough of a common thread that a significant chunk can be dismissed all at once. They are much more believable than the expert on the paranormal interviewed, who clai that the existence of ghosts doesn't contradict Einstein. I question the messenger, at least, as I strongly suspect that someone who understands special relativity might not suggest that you can only see ghosts under light that is not electromagnetic in nature (despite electromagnetism being light is).

Like most documentaries, Cherry Valley comes together in the editing room. It's one of the best-cut movies I've seen in a while; no interview segment seems to go on too long, and the jumps between them are smooth. The "haunted house" bits last just long enough for the audience to be right with the guys on screen in terms of freaking out without sucking the sense of danger out.

Where there's no good footage, Steward makes do with some simple, but generally effective, animation. It's something he maybe goes to a little too much toward the end, especially since the leans on the music more in those scenes. It works some at the moment, but a couple minutes later you recognize that the filmmakers have just pushed a button, rather than letting the audience scare themselves by just taking what's on-screen seriously. And as creepy as the scenes in the abandoned houses are, there are some moments that just play as goofy, like when they're on the trail to one of the houses and one guy's allergy to ragweed is revealed as if they'd just seen a real ghost.

As silly as that moment is, it's also charming, showing the would-be paranormal investigators as regular folks. It's not a perfect movie, but I'd like to see a distributor take a chance on it; it would make for a fun Halloween release and better schedule-filler than a lot of fictional ghost stories.

Also at HBS.

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