It's a little too easy to be cynical in advance of a descriptive title like A Haunting in Cawdor. It clues you in before a single frame of film has played that we're going to be dealing with supernatural forces. No ambiguity here. Like the seemingly endless stream of zombies movies with "of the dead" in the title, the film by default aligns itself with a strand of cinematic horror that includes hauntings in Connecticut, Georgia, Massachusetts, Salem, Silver Falls, Preston Castle, the Rectory, Cellblock 11 and Ravenswood, to name but a few. Thus unless it's the mother of understatements, this feels like safety play. Why risk the uncertainties of word of mouth when you can target your audience with the title alone? Except research on the poster artwork (see the column on the right) suggests that the original title was the more minimalist and teasingly inexplicit Cawdor. Quite who decided to hedge their bets and add the bit about haunting is anybody's guess.
My early apprehension about the title was initially born out when cheerless 20-something Vivian is dropped off at a bus stop and starts having the sort of visions that have blighted low budget horror films for some years now. You know the sort of thing – distorted images, strange colour tints, odd-looking humanoids and growly voices. Such hallucinations usually last only a few short seconds, filtered imagery inserted edited into reality to suggest that a character (just one) has seen or imagined something sinister and other-worldly. Such is the case here. Vivian then meets a girl whose dialogue and delivery immediately suggest that she's probably no longer in the land of the living. A short while later Vivian looks away and the girl confirmed my suspicions by disappearing. Remember the title? Then along comes the upbeat young Robby, who talks like someone who's just take some speed and is just a little too pushy about his promise to pay Vivian a visit soon. Vivian seems to think he's OK, but we know from the off that there's something wrong here. Long before the halfway mark I had worked out what. Well, sort of.
Vivian, it turns out, is one of a number of young offenders whose good behaviour has landed them a place on a 90-day probationary work release programme at the Cawdor Barn Theatre, which is run by the amiable Lawrence O'Neil, a former hotshot Broadway director whose career has since nosedived. Work details are assigned and discipline is enforced by the no-nonsense Kosack, a hard-nosed ex-offender who comes across as someone who joined the Sons of Anarchy after being thrown out of Drill Instructor school. The blend of work and art therapy sees the probationers dividing their time between hard physical graft and preparing a production of Shakespeare's Macbeth, a famously cursed play that ended badly for the school when previously staged. Her full blooded audition lands Vivian the key role of Lady Macbeth, which she throws herself into, responding enthusiastically to Lawrence's teaching. But by this point she is being haunted by troubling flashbacks and aural hallucinations, which intensify when she discovers and plays a tape of O'Neil's previous and fated production of the play.
A Haunting in Cawdor attempts to meld psychological drama with supernatural horror and never really pulls it off. The horror's the problem here, a largely unimaginative collection of recycled ideas and well-worn tricks that no longer scare and are so familiar now I can no longer recall where I saw them first. The psychological drama, however, is rather involving. Sensation is neatly sidestepped and key character details are revealed without fanfare – it takes only brief shots of a newspaper cutting and a Tony Award to inform us that Lawrence was once a successful Broadway director – while others are held back until their almost offhand revelation best serves the story.
Performances matter here. As Vivian, Shelby Young is impressively restrained and most convincing when struggling with troubled memories, but also has the chops to sell her full-blooded audition speech as one that a casting director would enthusiastically respond to. Cary Elwes also keeps it low-key as Lawrence O'Neil, as does Patrick Floch as Vivian's psychiatrist Dr. Lazarus, a name I'm not sure we're meant to read anything into. And while he may bark his manipulating threats at full voice, in all other respects one-time-only actor Charlie King does damned well as Kosack, his believable downtime conversations with Lawrence revealing the essentially decent man beneath the hard-ass bluster.
It seems clear that writer-director Phil Wurtzel has a passion for the theatre (word has it that he wrote the script while working on a documentary on the real-life Barn Theatre in Augusta, Michigan) and it's in the preparations and rehearsals for the group's production of Macbeth that the film is at its most dramatically vibrant. Indeed, there's plenty to recommend when Wurtzel puts the more hackneyed supernatural elements on hold, and I was left with the feeling that if he was somehow able to jettison the horror and flesh out the psychological battles being fought by Vivian and Lawrence, he'd have the makings of a very decent drama.
A Haunting in Cawdor will be released in US cinemas and on VOD on 11 March 2016. The film had a limited UK release in October 2015 by Miracle Communications,