Studio: Gravitas Ventures
Director: Michael Rasmussen, Shawn Rasmussen
Writer: Michael Rasmussen, Shawn Rasmussen
Producer: Bridget Keefe, Glenn Cooper
Stars: Elise Couture Stone, Michael Reed, Judith Chaffee, Rebecca Whitehurst, Erica Derrickson, Vasilios Asimakos, Edmund Donovan, Danny Bryck, Victoria Nugent, India Pearl
A couple moves into a colonial New England home haunted by a legendary witch blamed for a plague of missing children.
Receiving an email from filmmaker Shawn Rasmussen about his and his brother Michael’s sophomore directorial effort “The Inhabitants” is not so strange. What is odd is that the message opened with a declaration of appreciation for my reviews. Didn’t I say something more than a little unflattering about use of the phrase “from the writers of John Carpenter’s The Ward” while covering The Rasmussen Brothers’ previous movie “Dark Feed?”
Looking back at that review, my negativity was harsher than remembered, ending on a summation of “Dark Feed” (review here) being “one of the more forgettable horror movies in recent memory.” Are they sure they had the right person in mind when considering critics who should have a look at their follow-up film?
Discounting possibilities of being unaware of that review or mistakenly pinging me with a cut-and-paste greeting, that meant one of two things. Either the siblings intended to be out in front of my opinion on the next go-around, or they accepted criticism with professionalism, perhaps even considered unfavorable points with an eye towards improvement. No matter the case, my respect for the Rasmussens grew exponentially, more so if the latter is true.
Now the dilemma presented itself. Putting it mildly, “The Ward” is not regarded as a high point in John Carpenter’s career. I cared even less for “Dark Feed.” What are the odds a third time might charm? Do I chance committing to coverage of a movie I might have to pan, after its co-director has been complimentary no less?
The trailer intrigued enough that a dice roll was warranted. And in the 2.5 years since reviewing “Dark Feed,” I’d like to think I’ve developed enough tact to no longer make blunt statements such as, “their script is no work of Shakespeare.” In all likelihood, The Rasmussen Brothers matured at their trade, too.
One minute into “The Inhabitants” and I was silently groaning, “uh oh.” A couple, possibly portrayed by a pair without previous onscreen experience, settles in for the night at a centuries-old New England inn. With a quizzical grimace, the woman tells the man of a creaking noise in the bathroom. “It’s an old house,” he says. The woman’s previously pursed lips twist into an “oh yeah, duh” smile as she replies, “you’re right” and joins him under the covers. I’d been advised “The Inhabitants” was a homegrown project filmed with friends and financed on a shoestring, but was the entire movie going to be as roughly written and amateurly acted as this prelude?
The good news answer to that question is no. “The Inhabitants” goes on to develop into a quietly unsettling chiller making the most of its microbudget mood. The not as positive elaboration is that the very long fuse on its very slow burn doesn’t lead to the most explosive barrel of TNT tension or terror.
Dan and Jessica, a different duo than featured in the opening, are a charming enough young couple. Anxious for both a new home and a new business, the pair purchases The March Carriage bed and breakfast from a creepy old woman’s caretaking niece and moves in to a mystery. Fun fact: the film was shot at the historic Noyes-Parris House in Massachusetts, once home to Reverend Samuel Parris, whose daughter and niece made the awful accusations that kickstarted the Salem Witch Trials.
A trip to the local library reveals that The March Carriage’s original owner was married to midwife Lydia March, hanged for witchcraft in 1669 when a plague afflicted local children. A trip to a crawlspace hidden within the walls then results in Jessica becoming plagued by Lydia’s supernatural spirit. Legend tells tales of children disappearing after Lydia’s death, and it seems she intends to continue her cursed legacy from beyond the grave using Jessica as her vessel.
Actor Michael Reed gives Dan an affable softness that keeps his Everyman husband likable and relatable. At issue with actress Elise Couture Stone’s companion performance is that when her paranormal possession requires Jessica to start behaving strangely, she REALLY starts behaving strangely. Jessica goes so far into a state of frosty catatonia that even though Dan realizes something is off, any reasonably-minded husband would be ready to buckle straightjacket restraints without hesitation.
Jessica’s single-jump transformation notwithstanding, “less is more” is otherwise the movie’s motto. What makes “The Inhabitants” admirable is that its ambition restrains itself within achievable bounds, focusing on atmospheric appeal through setting and nuance instead of flashy frights or spectacle it doesn’t possess the budget to make believable.
At the same time, scaled-down suspense requires a tolerant viewer, and “The Inhabitants” doesn’t make it easy to invest that patience. Grisly ghosts and ample action redeem the climax, but the climb to reach that peak takes breathy pauses in uneventful lulls. The gradual build goes on so long that the trick bag runs out of interesting ways to stretch scares. More than once the fallback tactic is simply passing a shadow in the foreground or background with an accompanying audio cue, a setup reused often enough that eeriness effectively erodes.
There remains enough substance in the film’s feel for unwearied ghost story fans to get behind it as a mood piece. Those in search of a gorier punch to a similar premise might wish to choose “We Are Still Here” (review here) instead.
At the very least, “The Inhabitants” is not the kind of skeletal indie attempting to cheat audiences with cut corners before running carelessly to the next project, like unnamed others churning cheap cash-grabs on a bi-weekly basis. No matter the film’s subjective entertainment value, sincere commitment is evident. The Rasmussen Brothers might not be there yet in realizing a full-fledged feature capable of really knocking socks, but “The Inhabitants” is a step in a better direction.
Review Score: 60