Tom and Brenda have the perfect life but when Brenda is violently attacked in the comfort of their home, their perfect lives are thrown into chaos and fear.
Though I would normally spend this initial 100 or so words (sometimes more) rambling on about a topic very loosely connected (sometimes not at all) with the actual film in question, I feel I must get something out of the way right off the bat. “Haunting of the Innocent” is a terrible title. Vaguely generic movie monikers burn my gourd, and immediately sound off alarms of impending mediocrity. If you can’t come up with anything snappy, at the very least keep the damn thing short and sweet.
Despite the fact that the only character within this effort from director Matt Hish (“The Blackout”) who qualifies as being haunted is far from innocent, our latest offering serves up some original concepts and effective moments as it weaves its tale of small town witchcraft and possession. Though stumbling a bit in its rather languid execution, the intriguing premise and strong performances raise it above the average Redbox fodder and ever-growing Netflix queue movies you may never get around to watching.
The opening is a grabber, as Brenda (former “One Life to Live” regular Jessica Morris) returns home from an afternoon jog to be raped by a masked assailant. This random act of violence prompts her to entreat cheating husband and successful architect Tom (Rib Hillis, another soap opera star) to move back to the home of her birth while she recovers. With androgynous son Rodger (Dane Hillis) in tow, they relocate to her widowed father Erik’s home in rural Thornby. Veteran English performer of both stage and screen Neil Dickson (“Inland Empire”) stands out as the mysterious and doting Erik, who is no fan of Tom for reasons unclear except possibly to add a layer of quiet conflict to the early dynamic.
As Tom and Rodger catch lunch at a local diner, Brenda visits her mother’s former flower shop, now abandoned and in disrepair from years of neglect. There she discovers a box containing a note from her mother and a scorched book of ancient Norse text. Meanwhile, the boys encounter odd yet friendly townsfolk during their meal, including a gentleman who attempts a warning only to be cut off by a coughing fit of black bile.
Disconcerting events begin to stack up, though they are bogged by a lack of connection and seem to exist only to keep the dull middle third from dragging down the entire enterprise. Also, there are far too many dream sequences that amount to even less, adding naught to either narrative or exposition. They are just . . . there. Once Brenda meets family friend Beyla (Hannah Cowley of The Asylum’s “Mega Shark vs. Crocosaurus”), we’re finally gifted with a little plot progression. Beyla’s story of a Viking warrior’s battle with a powerful and feared witch upon the land where Thornby now resides is fascinating, as is the Norse mythology that becomes paramount once things pick up into the final third.
An argument over their deteriorating marriage turns fervid, resulting in Tom raping Brenda (this poor woman apparently can’t avoid sexual assault) in an intense and emotionally wrenching scene. From there the picture becomes even more muddled, but it actually works in the film’s favor, save Tom’s pointless sojourn back to the city to give Judd Nelson a bit more face time on camera. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention. Judd Nelson’s in this. Any rabid fans of the Brat Packer need not apply however, because his role as Tom’s boss is so inconsequential and tiny, I’m surprised it wasn’t portrayed by either Rutger Hauer or Danny Trejo. I reckon they must have been busy at the time of casting.
Treading into “The Wicker Man” territory once Tom receives a panicked phone call from Rodger and speeds back to Thornby, “Haunting” tops off its mixed bag of tricks with a memorable and eerie finale. Perhaps the overall lack of focus had finally worn yours truly down, because I’d found myself forgiving the several missteps the film took along the way and enjoying it as a whole. I’d like to believe it has nothing to do with the fact that nearly every female cast member (all of whom are unnaturally gorgeous, of course) appears naked at some point throughout the last stretch.
Hish’s direction varies as much as his screenplay, written with Ian Ascher and Chris W. Freeman. The big moments are artfully rendered, but he struggles to keep the many lulls afloat, giving “Haunting” a dubious Lifetime Original feel in places. His staging in these slower spells is never less than serviceable, but nonetheless makes no attempt to juice up the proceedings. Even the soundtrack follows suit, providing a wonderfully simplistic score courtesy of Darren Morze that is often hampered by disembodied whispering that grows distracting as events progress.
Only the cast maintains a level of excellence. Hillis and Morris prove that there is life after daytime drama, and hold the interest through the maudlin as well as the captivating. They may never join the ranks of Julianne Moore or Brad Pitt in this respect, but that certainly won’t be for lack of commendable effort. Looking back in retrospect, Dickson’s Erik serves no real purpose, but his palpable presence alone makes that fact a moot point.
“Haunting of the Innocent” (man, I still hate that title) has a king’s ransom of great ideas in its favor, many of which never approach any semblance of cohesion in execution. It isn’t a great movie, and it isn’t even a very good movie. Still, you could do a lot worse when searching for that amiable time-passer on a chilly eve whilst waiting for the coming spring. But, you could do a lot better as well.