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Entries in Haunting in Salem/A [2011] (1)


A Haunting in Salem (2011)

A Plea for Terribly Great Filmmaking

In lieu of a traditional review for A Haunting in Salem, please enjoy this open letter to director Shane Van Dyke:

Dear Shane:

I hope you don't mind if I use your first name. Though we've never met, you truly are dear to my heart. The numerous hours of entertainment you've given me in the last year are, I believe, cosmic proof that we are kindred explorers on a journey to find the apex of mind-blowing cinema.

Your skills as an actor, writer, and director are unparalleled. Never in my brief life as a film critic have I seen one person place such a distinctive stamp of awfulness on so many movies. Please, don't take that as a slam. I am truly grateful to have seen Titanic 2, Transmorphers: Fall of Man, and The Day the Earth Stopped. Some call them direct-to-video knock-offs of mainstream blockbusters. I call them windows to the soul of our greatest living artist.

A couple days ago, my dear friend, Bryan, asked if I would review all of your films--it's tempting, but as a young filmmaker, you don't have nearly the output to satiate my appetite. I like to spread your movies out in my viewing queue and give them the sacred time they deserve, so Paranormal Entity and 6 Guns will have to wait a few months.

But something has changed, Shane, and you need to turn your life around before it's too late. Yesterday, I watched your latest feature, A Haunting in Salem. As with all Asylum productions, the movie features unbelievably shitty cover art,* cheesy, Intro-to-Computer-Graphics opening titles, and a handful of head-scratching flourishes (the sound of birds chirping during an establishing fly-over of the Massachusetts woods, for instance). But it quickly became clear that H. Perry Horton's story of a family moving into a house haunted by witch spirits was nothing more than a standard-issue "B" horror movie. With all due respect, sir, you do not make "B" horror movies. The name "Shane Van Dyke" is synonymous with "F-", and you need to get back on track.

Let's start with the film's style. Each SVD classic that I've seen has been notable for looking embarrassingly cheap. The green-screen and compositing work often feels incomplete at best and hand-drawn at worst. But A Haunting in Salem looks like it was filmed with a state-of-the-art high-def camera (not surprising, since I see that there's a 3D blu-ray version available). There's also a startling lack of computer-generated effects here; all of the scares, gore, and stunts appear to have been handled practically.

The scene where a sheriff's deputy is found strung up by wires in front of the house is pretty creepy. Earlier, you pulled off a jump-scare involving patriarch Wayne Downs (Bill Oberst Jr.) removing a sheet from what he thinks is a piece of furniture. Because you placed something genuinely eerie under that sheet, I was startled by a moment that I've snored through a hundred times before.

Perhaps your biggest sin is assembling this great cast. Sure, each family member acts as if they're in completely different movies, but they inhabit these alternate realities wonderfully. As the put-upon parents, Oberst and Courtney Abbiati make a fascinating couple. He looks to be about twenty years older than her, and the fact that they have two teenage kids implies a reeeally inappropriate courtship. Their son, Kyle (Nicholas Harsin), and daughter, Alli (Jenna Stone), seem trapped in mid-90s TV movies about coming out of the closet and struggling with drugs/eating disorders, respectively. Everyone is believable in their roles, even if those roles aren't believably strung together.

You and Horton pack every horror-movie cliché into this thing, but because A Haunting in Salem is so (dare I say it?) competently directed, I was bored throughout much of the movie--a stark contrast from the side-splitting laugh-o-ramas you're known to deliver. You even up the ante with the climax, a surprisingly brutal downer that betrays the feel-good-escapism of most films destined to wind up in a 2-for-1 Big Lots bin. In these scenes, Stone is just plain great as Possessed Alli. Through a combination of cool hair and makeup and a sufficiently off-kilter performance, she even overcomes the scene-killing bit of SVD magic wherein you give her a broken-Playskool-microphone "demon voice".

It's a bad sign for any Asylum film when I can only point to one hilariously egregious problem. In this case, it's the two scenes where people are thrown out of the house's top-floor window--despite the shattering-glass sound effects, there's not a shard to be seen either on the ground or in the shots of the dummies flying through the air. That's terrific. That's what I expect from Shane Van Dyke.

But it looks like you're starting to mature as a filmmaker. That, sir, just cannot stand. I argue with people all the time about my shunning of films like The Muppets and Hugo as being bad, boring entertainment--while sincerely and enthusiastically recommending your movies. As I've explained ad nauseam, there are two types of bad film. The first is one in which every story beat, character development and line of dialogue can be predicted by minute five. Yes, this includes mega-budget blockbusters by reputable writers and directors. It's especially offensive in their case, because they're often able to cover their hackneyed tracks with expensive visuals (the "Shiny Objects" theory).

The second kind of film--namely, yours--is bad on every traditional level, but in very untraditional ways. Most micro-budget sci-fi/horror movies feature cheap visuals and bad actors. But you treat your movies as if you've got all the money in the world. Your love of every project shines through in a completely uncynical, non-self-aware way. You're a 21st-Century Ed Wood. It's impossible to watch a SVD production and not be in awe of the fact that every single decision is not only bad, but the worst of any option available. It takes a keen eye and a gargantuan heart to make films that play like brilliant genre parodies--films in which boredom never enters the equation.

I don't know if you've started taking film classes or are simply paying attention to master filmmakers. Whatever the case, I implore you to stop before becoming just another work-for-hire schlock director--or, worse yet, a good director. The world is a better place for having the unique, Shane Van Dyke brand of taste-defying creativity in it. Gifts such as yours should not be squandered on making good movies.

With all the love, hope, and respect in the universe, I remain...


Ian Simmons

*Browsing the Netflix Instant menu, your latest films never take more than a few seconds to announce themselves. Incidentally, I love the fact that the house in the artwork looks nothing like the house in the movie.