Providence RI based director Richard Griffin has carved a niche in independent genre films by mining the tropes of the past. Under the Scorpio Films Releasing production company he's released odes to the sticky floored 42nd Street salad days (The Disco Exorcist, Nun of That), and simpler eras where McCarthyism ruled and teens piled into Chevys to watch B-movies under the open skies (Atomic Brain Invasion). While his films have always mined the conventions of the era he's spoofing, there's always been an aura of fun, even whimsy is the films. Griffin's managed to carve out a niche as a modern day Roger Corman- constantly turning out entertaining films with a fantastic eye for detail despite budgets that would barely pay for a used Hyundai Accent. With his latest film Exhumed, Griffin travels back further in time, crafting an unsettling slice of psychological horror.
Exhumed tells the story of the final days of the last remnants of a bizarre, cultish “family”. Indie stalwart Debbie Rochon (billed as “The Governess”) oversees the clan with an iron fist despite her increasing flights of fancy and offbeat behavior. She's simultaneously assisted and opposed by “The Butler (Michael Thurber) as the pair try to eek some semblance of a life from their diminished fortunes and family that consists of a drunken man-child (Rich Tretheway), resident sexpot (Evalena Marie) and the daughter of the sect's long dead founder, the developmentally stunted and childlike Laura (Sarah Nicklin). The family distrusts the outside world, leaving their home only when forced and blocking all natural light from warming the museum-like confines. Yet they find themselves desperate to grow their numbers and restore themselves to a long faded glory (Thurber comments how they once had many homes across many parts of the country). When Chris, a college student hellbent on getting out of the dorms, answers their ad for a room for let, they're cautiously ecstatic at the growth in their ranks. Yet his arrival, and Laura's infatuation with the young man, sets in motion a chain of events that signals the tragic end of everyone in the home.
With Exhumed Richard Griffin and screenwriter Guy Benoit have crafted an unnerving piece of psychological horror unlike anything else we're seeing today. It's the rare film that stays with you long after the lights come up. Certain disturbing sequences and visuals will set your teeth on edge and it's punctuated by moments of short, brutal violence. It's a tale of madness and deterioration in the tradition of The Fall of The House of Usher. Benoit's script hints at dark events that unravelled the family, yet respects the audience enough to let them make their own connections, never hand holding or providing easy answers.
Filmed in stark black and white (brief flashbacks of better days contain warm, Kodak imbibed color), Exhumed is a terrific dark drama in the tradition of Val Lewton's character explorations. The look of the film is steeped in noir. Budget be damned, Griffin sets up sumptuous compositions, including a shot that keeps Rochon in shadow save for her eyes that reminds one of Joan Crawford and a gorgeous overhead shot Thurber and Rochon in the sterile kitchen. Exhumed is one of the most beautiful indie films to just sit back and soak in for the visual eye candy. Working with tight confines and budget, Griffin demonstrates an ability to block a shot for maximum impact and chills.
Griffin's largest advantage heading in to Exhumed is the return his ensemble of talented actors. This familiarity allows Griffin to tailor the beats around the strengths and foibles of his troupe. Michael Thurber adds the needed gravitas with just the right amount of winking, and in many ways delivers a performance reminiscent of horror icon Vincent Price. Nicklin and Reed share a breezy and charming chemistry on screen, and the tragic turns and developments of their character's relationship give Exhumed the emotional depth needed to engage the audience amongst the bizarre twists the story takes. Reed takes great relish in acting the part of a 1940's Hollywood leading man.
However, the biggest treat of Exhumed is Rochon's powerhouse performance. She channels the great and damaged femme fatales of an era long gone. One can't help but believe Benoit and Griffin had Sunset Boulevard's Norma Desmond on the brain when the put the Governess character on the page and screen. Rochon is more than up to the challenge, retreating into a world of madness and despair where she keeps her underlings under her thumb by any means available. Rochon's eyes tell as much of a story as her words, as she often takes on the look of a trapped animal taking a panicked look at her surroundings in a futile attempt for safe harbor.
At the risk of overstating things, Exhumed highlights the importance of the independent film movement for horror fans. Currently film studios won't green light a film unless it fills a very specific, profitable niche (found footage, 3D, watered down PG13 teen oriented fare) and it's a very cookie cutter, “me too” industry. Griffin and cohorts continue to delve down well tread terrain and mine new material and nightmares from the things our parents (or in the case of Exhumed our parents' parents) found to be the things of nightmares.