Tuesday, July 16, 2013

THE INVOKING: The Past Inside the Present

The Invoking (2013)
(Formerly Titled Sader Ridge)
Director: Jeremy Berg
Rating: 7 / 10
Seen via: DVD Screener

The mind tends to bury memories slowly, sifting new experiences over them to gradually erect a barrier between past and present. What's always fascinated me is how easily these walls can collapse. I experienced this a few years ago when I visited my childhood neighborhood after over a decade of absence. While I can recall a fair amount of detail about the early events of my life, the memories have been worn down in my mind and mythologized through telling and retelling. Once back in the neighborhood, I was amazed at how the tiniest details were able to trigger the return of old memories with a remarkable level of clarity. Thankfully, my childhood was free from trauma, so the memories unleashed were small and harmless. Not so for the characters in The Invoking.

The Invoking starts as so many horror films do: with a group of young adults headed out to a house in the woods. Don't let the premise put you off - they're not traveling there to be slashed, possessed, or otherwise killed for your entertainment. The characters are the pivot about which The Invoking turns, and it needs them intact for a while (at least physically). Sam (Trin Miller) has inherited a piece of farm property from her estranged aunt, and brings her friends out to inspect the land and have some fun. Having been raised by foster parents, she knows little of the early years of her life or the identities of her parents, so the personal connection she has to the house is minimal. Accompanying her on the trip are three of her closest friends, each of whom is also bringing along their own batch of insecurities. The character interactions drive the majority of this film, especially early on, so it's a huge boon that they're well-drawn and multifaceted. All the actors are extremely comfortable in their roles, and the time you're given to invest in them strengthens the ultimate impact of the film.

Once at the cabin, the four encounter a creepy caretaker named Eric (D'Angelo Midili) who's roughly Sam's age and previously worked for her deceased aunt. He hints that he knows more of Sam's past than she remembers, and that this isn't the first time the two of them have met. Midili's straight-faced portrayal of Eric is a highlight - you're never quite sure whether he's just shy and quiet or if he's deliberately keeping secrets from Sam and her friends. As the four friends explore the property, signs seem to point to the latter, especially when Sam's memories begin resurface in disturbing fragments. While memories of her childhood have eluded her for her entire life, she becomes witness to increasingly strange events in the farmhouse that seem to echo the past. Tension builds within the group of friends, and she's left wondering whether she's witnessing reality-distorting flashbacks or is just overreacting to a stressful vacation.

Slow-burn horror that works is extremely rare, but The Invoking gets it right. While we're aware throughout the film that something sinister is building, the pieces we're given don't quite fit together until the very end. The incomplete picture is both intriguing and foreboding. The mood is aided by the film's atmosphere, which takes full advantage of the rural setting. The pace is a little slow early on, and isn't afraid to take its time letting its characters explore the area surrounding the house. But these scenes are employed in the interest of character development, and in my opinion end up paying off. At 82 minutes, The Invoking doesn't drag, and the best part of the gradually building plot is that it eventually brings everything together in a suspenseful climax.

For a small-budget independent film, The Invoking boasts professional-quality production value. The film is expertly shot and edited. With the exception of a few nighttime scenes that are sort of tough to make out, the film looks spectacular. Enhancing the tone is the score by Seattle rock outfit Trip Like Animals, who scale back their bold psychedelic rock to somber ambient melodies occasionally laced with droning feedback. This is a film that was clearly assembled with care, and I'm glad to add it to the growing list of strong character-driven indie horror that I've seen this year. (For more examples, see Found, Dead Weight, and The Holy Sound.) Rather than try to mask budgetary deficiencies with cheap gore or insincerity, the team behind The Invoking realizes that the secret to good horror lies primarily in solid storytelling.

Thanks to co-writer/producer John Portanova for sending me a screener copy of the film. The Invoking has played a number of festivals, including Sun Valley, Crypticon, and the Seattle True Independent Film Fest, where it earned the fest's Audience Award. Future screenings include the Fright Night Film Fest in Louisville, KY later this month. You can watch the trailer at the official site, or keep up to date with new screenings and information at the film's Facebook page.

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