Studio: Momentum Pictures
Director: Darren Lynn Bousman
Writer: Christopher Monfette
Producer: Jesse Berger, Brent C. Johnson
Stars: Jessica Lowndes, Joe Anderson, Lin Shaye, Dayton Callie, J. LaRose, Michael Pare, Bryan Batt
A murder investigation leads a reporter to a mysterious man building a haunted house out of rooms removed from crime scenes.
A mysterious man is buying homes where violent tragedies took place. Be it murder or suicide, if a bloody or brutal event resulted in death there, Jebediah Crone wants to become the new owner.
But Jebediah doesn’t want the whole house. He only rips out the rooms where bodies gave up their ghosts. Jebediah then has the walls, ceiling, and floor moved to somewhere unknown. As for location or motive, no realtor is eager to even speculate.
Reporter Julia Talben aims to uncover the where and the why. When Crone’s latest acquisition connects to a crime close to home, Julia digs into Crone’s purchasing pattern and finds one thing each horror house has in common. Every ordeal traces back to the seemingly-plucked-from-time town of New English, a shadowy hamlet where outsiders are unwelcome, which also happens to be Julia’s birthplace.
With the help of her detective love interest Grady, Julia returns to the hometown she never knew in search of answers about Crone and his secret project. When she finds out what New English has built in the dark of their forest, Julia also learns that she may have been a piece in Crone’s puzzle all along.
For the sake of a binary Rotten Tomatoes rating, “Abattoir” earns “Fresh” status. The clever premise is imaginatively original, a streak of Lovecraftian noir adds stunning style, and atmosphere is charged with creative chills.
Jennifer Spence’s knockout production design is absolute aces. And director of photography Michael Fimognari is up to the challenge of making an independent budget look like a multimillion-dollar production.
Jebediah Crone is building an architectural monstrosity spitting in the face of symmetry and sensibility with an impossible layout that would make the Winchester Mystery House drop its jaw. “Abattoir” doesn’t have the scope to realize that vision practically, but the killer combination of CGI, sets, and cinematography makes the dark fantasy come to life, or death as it were, in finely fearsome fashion. “Abattoir” looks spectacular.
Influenced by the ‘40s films of Bogart and Bacall, director Darren Lynn Bousman layers noir into every nook. “Abattoir” takes place in the present, but cigar smoke in the background, updo hairstyles in the foreground, and trumpet plungers on the soundtrack thicken a throwback tone. With movies like “The Devil’s Carnival” and “Repo! The Genetic Opera” on his résumé, Bousman is not one to shy away from quirk. This seesaw of simultaneous styles separated by seventy years certainly fits Bousman’s bailiwick, though it doesn’t consistently hit the mark in the movie.
Where that moody mixture sees its best use is in establishing the anachronistic, creeptastic setting of New English. New English feels like Innsmouth without fish people, with a palpable threat coming from conspiratorial humans rather than tentacled elder gods.
The hard-boiled vibe also works well in early scenes of rapid-fire conversation. Dialogue drips with the telltale ticks of Hammett and Chandler wordsmithing. You can almost hear “sweetheart” itching to end every sentence out of a man’s mouth when speaking to Jessica Lowndes’ plucky Lois Lane character.
Having less success with the cadence is Joe Anderson as Grady. Anderson gets great quips like, “this dance we’re doing has a pretty short song.” But his refusal to move his teeth when he talks results in a bothersome mumble.
Acting is otherwise terrific. Dayton Callie of “Deadwood” and “Sons of Anarchy” is incredible as Jebediah Crone. Callie presents an outward appearance of journeyman old-timer, yet when he turns up his Jim Jones preacher persona, his previously understated danger unleashes a dragon. Lin Shaye is everything her fans expect, flipping between hospitable and horrible at the flick of a schizophrenic switch with convincing command.
Assessing structure and plotting in detail results in a more mixed review of the film. “Abattoir” was conceived as part of a multimedia project including a proposed webseries as well as a six-issue comic book first released in 2010. That grand design to be one cog in a greater creative machine trips up this particular story before it can hit a full stride with a confident snap of finish line tape.
“Abattoir” falls into the transmedia trap of trying to be more than one thing. This dual-purpose pitfall is most commonly seen when a feature film tries doubling as a potential TV pilot pitch, thus suiting its script to fill a role beyond satisfying a complete 90-minute arc.
Because it is one piece in a multi-tiered project existing before and after the film incarnation, “Abattoir” builds a richly dense mythology. However, it doesn’t need this much backstory for the entertainment at hand. The level of complex narrative development can be appreciated from a big picture view. More immediately, “Abattoir” lays a lot of foundation bricks that simply don’t serve this slice of the story. This makes for an incredibly chatty movie because there is so much to explain, often in conversations or soliloquies long enough to prompt a wrist-turning look at your watch.
Nothing about the setup requires the timeline to be current. Going full period piece with the setting would take atmosphere to a level of fuller immersion instead of straddling a middle line that doesn’t always blend both eras effectively. Technical edges are not necessarily as tight as they could be either, like some strange jump cuts in the last act appearing at such odd intervals that they seem more erroneous than artistic. Yet what really keeps “Abattoir” from blowing out its immense potential is that haranguing determination to fill more than one function with its fiction.
Getting back to that binary critical assessment, it should be made clear that enough positive things cannot be said of the impressive efforts everyone puts on the screen. “Abattoir” is a unique horror-noir thriller that deserves to be of high interest for any genre movie fan. If it only committed to being an outstanding standalone feature instead of an okay chapter in an incomplete saga, it wouldn’t have to worry about the pacing and plotting problems it doesn’t get right.
Review Score: 70