Friday, November 9, 2012

The Ghosts of Edendale (USA, 2003)

This independent, anti-industry ghost story is Stefan Avalos's follow-up project to his co-directorial (with Lance Weiler) début project The Last Broadcast (1998 / trailer), an independent "docu / found footage" horror flick that gained mild attention – not all of it positive – in the wake of the more successful and highly similar Blair Witch Project (1999 / trailer), which may have been made later but was released earlier.
For The Ghosts of Edendale, the setting of the events has moved from the backwoods of New Jersey to the civilized jungle of the film industry in Los Angeles, in this case a neighborhood, Edendale, built upon the former lands of the film studio known as Mixville, the personal studios of the film industry's first Rhinestone Cowboy, the now mostly forgotten western star Tom Mix who, active from around 1909 to 1935, died of a freak car accident on October 12, 1940, in Florence, Arizona, when, while taking a curve too quickly with his 1937 Cord Sportsman, a suitcase broke loose and hit him in the head, causing him to lose control and drive headlong into a ravine now named "The Tom Mix Wash." 
These facts just mentioned are of importance to the plot, as they form the background to a supernatural story that owes a slight nod to aspects of Rosemary's Baby (1968 / trailer) – although, in The Ghosts of Edendale one is never really sure whether or not Kevin (Stephen Wastell) has consciously turned to the other side in exchange for success and acceptance, as did Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes) in the Polanski film, or whether Kevin is simply possessed and taken over. The latter in inferred, to an extent, by the visual inference – in old films and in ghostly appearances – that he was once part of Mixville in the past and, as such, was also actually returning home. Be what it may, his "turnover" is as inexplicable to the viewer as it is to his girlfriend, Rachel (Paula Ficara) – and thus just as disturbing for us as for her. 
The plot is simple: strangers in a strange land, one finds acceptance, the other doesn't – and tragedy results. Rachel (Ficara) and Kevin (Wastell), a young couple from back East, move to California to start a new life as writers. They settle in the pleasant neighborhood of Edendale, which is only inhabited by successful clogs in the film industry – indeed, those that live there and don't make it in "the business" seem to literally disappear. Though both are enamored by the place at first, Rachel, a former model/actress recovering from a nervous breakdown, begins seeing things that she initially puts down to nerves. Returning after five days from her "final" modelling job in Boston, she finds a stranger in her house: Kevin has not only gone completely Californian – he no longer smokes, eats like an anorexic, spends his free time working on his body, and is the apogee of self-centered superficiality – but he is on a creative roll, banging out a western screenplay that seems, thanks to the assistance of all the neighborly connections, destined for success. But as success gets closer, he not only distances himself from Rachel, but the sightings she has also begin to get all the more frightening... 
The Ghosts of Edendale does a remarkably good job at being a horror film without having to rely on buckets of blood and gore or any of the visual excesses so common of today's horror films. The film is slow but steady, and takes its time to come to its conclusion, throwing in an occasional shock or subtle ghostliness to build its aura of unease, paranoia and inevitable doom. In fact, one might say that it almost takes too long, for often it comes across like a Twilight Zone episode that has been extended from 23 minutes to 90 minutes less by adding new scenes or sub-plots than by simply making everything take longer than it should; as a result, the pacing of the film is off and it often seems less to take its time than to simply meander. And while the ghostly boy and occasional spectral appearances work well at the start, the neon spray-painted ghostly faces on the yard's fence are simply cheesy – and the (oddly predictable) unexpected demise of a tertiary character is less logical than it should be. (Indeed, why "the force" of the industry, for a lack of a better name for it,  is out to destroy Rachel instead of simply letting her leave is never satisfactorily explained – perhaps Avalos simply sees the business is a basically evil entity that would rather destroy those that don't belong than let them leave, even if they plan to.) 
As for the acting, it is highly uneven throughout the film and almost always conveys a memorized script more than any form of natural spontaneity. Rachel (Ficara) fares best, though she by appearance fails to be a convincing former model/actress – she looks fab in a bathing suit, but she is nevertheless closer to the delicious Playboy ideal of the late 60s and early 70s than the anorexic toothpicks of today – but Kevin (Wastell) is Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! all the way up until he turns into an asshole, at which point he is suddenly and effectively real. Perhaps the most natural actor on the screen, Rachel's sister Rose (Maureen "I look like I had a nose job" Davis), is also the one with almost the shortest amount of screen time. 
The Ghosts of Edendale is one of those films that leaves you wishing that it was better than it actually is, because as it is it has way too many flaws to be truly laudable but, at the same time, something unidentifiable seems to shine through that makes you want to like it by the time it reaches its logical, if not brave and unexpected, final scene. Still, one comes away with the feeling that had Stefan Avalos possibly been less interested in his critique of the film industry – that to succeed in it one must give up one's soul, so to say – and had given more attention to the script, cinematography and acting, the film might have been a tab more, well, professional and satisfying.
A 1937 Cord Sportsman

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