Film Review – Sader Ridge
Horror films are often a genre that’s considered a good starting place for new filmmakers with little to no budget. Films like Night of the Living Dead, Halloween, and The Evil Dead were all made on shoestring budgets and helped launch the careers of filmmakers who went on to become common names in Hollywood. Not only that, but their innovation in the face of limited resources helped set new standards in genre techniques. There are many elements that combine to make the horror genre a field ripe for the creative picking. It’s not easy to make people afraid of something they knowingly enter into as imaginary to begin with, nor is it easy to do it with the confines of not the best equipment or experienced cast and crew. It’s a gamble on everyone’s part that everything will jive and payoff.
Sader Ridge, the first feature film from the production company The October People, is following in the footsteps of the efforts of many failed attempts and few successful ones, and delivers an entry into the horror genre that, critically, is not the prior. The story follows three friends as they accompany Sam (Trin Miller), who’s just inherited land in an isolated area of California from the family who gave her up for adoption, to check it out. While they’re there, they meet the caretaker, Eric (D’Angelo Midili), a local army vet who lives nearby and grew up with Sam. As the characters deal with their interpersonal relationships, Sam is haunted by a mystery from her past, which includes the strange involvement of Eric, and leads to trouble for everyone.
While this is not an in-your-face assault like The Evil Dead or Night of the Living Dead, it is a film that is directed with solid pacing, striking cinematography, and staunch acting that all surprisingly comes together after a shoot that only lasted seven days and was budgeted at $11,000. Instead of attempting to barrage the audience’s senses with voyeurism of violence and sex, it stokes a slow burn that culminates in a strong psychological sense of dread. We spend a lot of time with the four main characters that are also rounded out by Mark (Brandon Anthony), Caitlin (Andi Norris), and Roman (Josh Truax). D’Angelo Midili turns in the film’s strongest performance as the shy, enigmatic Eric, who truncates his insecurity with a sense of suspicious menace that never wavers too far in any one direction, leaving the audience with an uneasy position of never knowing if their trust can be placed in him.
As the friends spend more time together in the strange, isolated surroundings Sam’s new real estate provides, their relationships with each other are strained, and change, sometimes due to questionable observations made by Sam. It’s in these moments that the characters seem to make behavioral decisions that feel a little too sudden. At one point, two of the characters suddenly have an attraction for each other that was not indicated as existing prior to that moment, and leads to another character’s jealousy that also feels reactionary without enough purpose given. These moments are slight, and in no way work to undo the spell the story and tension create.
What helps to achieve a film that holds its own weight is its cinematography, editing, and sound design. The subtle movements of the camera leave spaces of geography questioned in just the right ways to contribute to the film’s sense of terror. There is something in the shadows, whether it be the shadows in the forest or the shadows of one’s past; the lighting is just dark enough in outer edges of the framing along with the movements that sometimes leave places of interest unseen, to give a mystery to the environment that feels just as much a part of the story as the characters. The sound design really backs this up to a point of bringing it alive. There are long lengths of running time that do not use any music at all, and when it does come in, you almost don’t consciously recognize it, except for the fact the tension has increased. It all adds layers to a film that could’ve otherwise been a throwaway attempt in the hands of lesser filmmakers.
The character of Roman, however, feels a bit like a missed opportunity in conjunction with the film’s use of sound design, as he is a sound engineer (perhaps a nod to Blow Out?), who is seen a lot at the beginning of the film recording everything he finds interesting, even to the point of making what’s considered Noise Music—the use of recorded sounds that are assembled to represent a pattern that could be construed as music. Unfortunately, nothing beyond Roman’s interest in the subject is ever used, and was something I was hoping to see weaved into the tension and terror of the film itself.
Overall, this is a great first effort for a feature film, especially one shot on very short time and budget restraints. But, as they say, limitations make for the best creativity, and here we see that directly in play. With a story written for what was available, and a group of filmmakers who know how to use what they have to play to the strengths that support a formidable structure, you come away from the film thinking about its uneasy answers and not about uneasy craftsmanship.
Final Grade: B+
*Sader Ridge was co-written and co-produced by former MacGuffin contributor John Portanova. It recently premiered at the Sun Valley Film Festival and will play Phoenix’s International Horror and Sci-Fi Film Festival on April 5th and 7th.