Judge Kerry Birmingham learns the hard way the truth of that old saying, "Never wander into an abandoned amusement park in rural Missouri." You know, the "rural Missouri" of the soul.
Welcome to Eidolon Crossing, Home of Dogwood Park.
Making a horror movie is easy; making a good horror movie is hard. The seemingly low expectations of horror fans guarantees an audience, but as a genre there are very few tropes and ideas that haven't been dissected and extrapolated to within an inch of their life (or unlife, if you want to be all "punning Crypt Keeper" about it). The result is it's hard to put a new or novel spin on the old concepts since everything is so derivative. Deadwood Park, with nary a recognizable face or reasonable budget to be seen, attempts to revive several horror standards while being a monster movie, a generations-spanning period piece, a ghost story, and a family drama all at the same time. Deadwood Park is certainly ambitious, encompassing all those genres while still making time to show a man getting killed by trowel.
Facts of the Case
After decades away, Jake Richardson (William Clifton) returns to the rural American town of Eidolon Crossing to find the town in a state of rapid decline. It seems the town never got over a series of grisly child murders that included Jake's own twin brother. Drawn back to the town as an adult, Jake moves into the remains of his childhood home and quickly finds out that the still-unsolved murders may have left dozens dead, but their restless spirits demand answers, and the only way to get them is to head into the decaying amusement park Dogwood Park, morbidly renamed "Deadwood Park" by the locals.
One thing the movie doesn't lack is story. If anything, Deadwood Park is too packed with detail, oozing back story and monster mythology and Freudian psychodrama. Ultimately spanning from World War II to the present and touching on the decades in between, the story in Deadwood Park is a kind of densely layered gothic epic. Whatever the intentions of its script, the film as produced falls prey to that old enemy of independent film, budget constraints. The tell-tale signs are there: acting that ranges from stiff to competent to hammy; bad sound and obtrusive audio replacement; gaping logic gaps; locations and camera angles chosen for practicality more than propriety. Writer-director Eric Stanze has experience making horror for pennies, and Deadwood Park continues his work in that vein. For many viewers, the movie's clear lack of gloss will be a major deterrent.
In his commentary, Stanze seems more than aware of the film's flaws, ruefully responding to festival screening criticisms and preemptively pointing out inconsistencies and shortcomings with a sense of self-deprecation meant to mask his clear defensiveness. It should probably be essential viewing for any aspiring filmmaker working outside the studio system, as Stanze was apparently beset by every production problem conceivable. Stanze goes to great lengths to defend his creative choices, but ultimately many of them simply turn out to be bad choices, carefully considered or no. Aiming to eke the most production value from his sets and evoke the less frenetic editorial feel of 1970s horror, Stanze insists on long, lingering shots of his locations, lovingly photographing the run-down shacks, neglected drive-ins, and decayed roller coasters. In attempting to build the impending sense of dread, Stanze succeeds only in padding the running time (an unwieldy 117 minutes); when minutes of film pass following Jake's car on a leisurely country drive to his abandoned childhood home, the tension dissipates and we're left wondering when the scares are going to start.
More than anything, the film's grand ambitions and complicated structure of flashbacks prevent even the clever ideas from becoming properly developed. The film is bloated with exposition and awkwardly positioned, non-linear flashbacks, turning a complicated storyline even more convoluted. The child killer and his story could and probably should have sustained the movie itself, but Jake's encounters with the child ghosts seem imported from a different movie-something Japanese, maybe-and grafted onto the film to add a few minimal scares and, in practical story terms, push Jake where he needs to go to advance the plot. As a genre rule, spectral children are inherently creepy, but the extended sequences in which Jake stumbles around his dark cabin by lantern light and eventually glimpses a small child wearing pancake makeup hardly qualifies. Couple this with Jake's tentative romance with a local shopkeeper's daughter (Lindsey Luscri), the kind of movie romance that happens mainly because two characters are around the same age, and there's a lot more going on than is really necessary.
Deadwood Park does have a few things working in its favor. As much as the lingering shots of the filming locations wear out their welcome, they do add immeasurable production value to the movie, ensuring that it looks at least a cut above the lowest-tier B-movie. Of particular note is the World War II flashback scenes, which look at times like genuine stock footage and which Stanze rightly points out as some of his best footage in the movie. Perhaps its biggest saving grace is the simple fact that, at its core, the secret of the mystery, while not entirely unpredictable or even sensible, is pretty interesting. The opening scene, the first of many flashbacks, shows several anonymous figures burying a trunk in a cellar, throwing an ornate crucifix in the shallow hole for good measure and mysterious reasons. The secret of what's in the trunk and how it connects to both the child murders and the bloody history of Eidolon Crossing is a novel one and one that instantly transforms Deadwood Park into a different kind of movie altogether (again). While this leads into the movie's most complex series of flashbacks and I'm still not quite sure it really fits together, the back story that unfolds adds some dramatic heft to the proceedings and justifies much of the exhaustive exposition. It doesn't mitigate the film's many problems, but it's clever enough to redeem a lot of the listless scares and clumsy melodrama of the majority of the movie.
Picture quality is nominal, while the sound mix is muddy and inconsistent, as voices are either lost or glaringly stand out as looped dialogue. In addition to Stanze's commentary, the extras include the usual negligible outtakes and the Stanze-produced music video for "Zombie '79" by metal band Crypt 33. Though Stanze alludes to a second commentary and a making-of in his commentary, these do not actually appear on this disc.
Though Deadwood Park makes a valiant effort and comes close, it fails to overcome the constraints of its indie roots and several poor, key creative choices on the part of Stanze (who also edited the movie). The film would have benefited from a tighter and more streamlined script, an even slightly larger budget, and a much shorter running time.
Were effort the sole determinant of a film's guilt or innocence, I could happily let Deadwood Park go. However, the product on the screen, while undoubtedly better for the time and attention of Stanze and his crew under less than ideal conditions, simply doesn't amount to a film that's cohesive or coherent. Deadwood Park is guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Cinema Epoch
• Commentary by Writer/Director/Editor Eric Stanze
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