Case Number 10123: Small Claims Court


Isabelle Films // 2006 // 20 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron (Retired) // October 6th, 2006

The Charge

A cinematic short slight on scares.

The Case

Upon returning to her ancestral home, a young woman discovers that her sister is obsessed with a letter composed by a dead woman over 50 years ago. For some reason, the message inside this ancient note is haunting her reclusive relative, and ghostly images from the past keep appearing in various places around the house. Eventually, the spirit makes its presence known, and its purpose seems enigmatic and odd. There are hints of suicide. There are also indications of murder. The end.

As short films go (approximately 20 minutes of runtime) An Iron Chain is interesting, if flat. Shot in and around Wisconsin, with a mostly novice cast and crew, this genial Gothic mystery has a lot of positive elements. Producer David Paul Schmickel is one of the few independent movie men with a clear mission statement. His intention is to make movies about women, with as many female faces in the cast as possible. In the case of An Iron Chain, all three leads are ladies, and their acting ranges from acceptable to average. This really isn't supposed to be a performance tour de force, however.

Instead, An Iron Chain wants to exist as an exquisite exercise in cinematic surroundings and achievable atmosphere. For the most part, director Jeff Bass gets the tone and temperament just right. There is an air of unease here, a feeling that elements outside the plane of reality are conspiring to confuse -- and possibly even hurt -- our heroines. As the carefully considered angles pile up, as the attention to period detail fills the screen, we eagerly anticipate the denouement, the moment when everything here comes together to scare and satisfy us.

It never arrives. Sadly, An Iron Chain is all suggestion and hints with very little follow-through. We more or less understand what is happening (a guilty spirit, uneasy for the lives she's taken, reaches out across the years and tries to influence the future), but never really get the emotional impact of such a scenario. Perhaps Schmickel's screenplay, overloaded with indirect dialogue and the most primitive of narratives, could have been clearer. If this is a standard spook show, an artist shouldn't be afraid to pander to the genre basics. Give us some false scares. Let the mood get a tad melodramatic. It is only by embracing the formulas that the ability to subvert them is possible. Without this tactic, what we end up with is a good-looking if cinematically inert experiment in tame terror. Kudos to anyone who wants to express their motion-picture muse outside the big-budget baloney of Tinseltown, but An Iron Chain is too subtle to be substantive. The lack of any clear connection to the characters or the circumstances dooms this otherwise aesthetically-pleasing production.

Provided to this critic on a homemade DVD-R, the transfer of An Iron Chain offers a nice, non-anamorphic image. The faux letterboxing (maintaining a big screen-like 1.85:1 aspect ratio) gives a nice balance to the colorful outdoor sequences. Once we get inside, however, the lack of lighting wrecks havoc on our sense of setting and location. On the sound side is a standard Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mix that turns the effects and music way up, and keeps the dialogue discernible but very much in the background. As for added content, we get a collection of outtakes, a trailer, and a producer's interview. The most interesting of the three is definitely Schmickel's brief introduction-like discussion. He comments on his company's mandate, his next production, and the purpose behind An Iron Chain. He seems sincere enough. It's just too bad the film he's currently focused on is so slight.

There is nothing wrong with a good old-fashioned Gothic horror story. Sadly, An Iron Chain is guilty of being more antiquated than arresting.

Review content copyright © 2006 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC

Scales of Justice
Judgment: 60

Perp Profile
Studio: Isabelle Films
Video Formats:
* Full Frame

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)

* None

Running Time: 20 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks
* Trailer
* Producer's Interview
* Outtakes

* Official Site