Movie Review: ‘A Haunting In Cawdor’

In “Ed Wood” there’s a scene in which the titular schlockmeister claims he could make an entire movie out of a bunch of random stock footage. He then proceeds to outline a nonsensical plot involving explosions, buffalo, and the military—sloppily stitching together a narrative out of whatever footage happens to be lying around.

“A Haunting in Cawdor” never resorts to stock footage—these days, digital video has largely eliminated the need for stock-footage padding, a longtime staple of no-budget horror filmmaking—but the haphazard weirdness of its plotting reminded me of that scene. “Cawdor” feels like it was based on a dare: “Betcha can’t make a horror movie involving an old barn, ‘Macbeth,’ a prison work-release program, a summer camp, ghosts, a VHS tape, and Cary Elwes!” “Oh yeah?” writer-director Phil Wurtzel presumably responded. “Watch me.”

What he came up with is the story of Vivian Miller (Shelby Young), a young woman haunted by her violent past, serving out her prison term for manslaughter at a barn theater in the middle of nowhere, which puts on a play every year with juvenile convicts, who serve as cast and crew and perform menial labor around the camp. This year, they’re putting on “Macbeth.” This program, which has somehow been running for years, has exactly three employees: a kind of drill-sergeant supervisor, a guy who drives a van, and theater director Lawrence O’Neil (Cary Elwes, who can’t be happy with his career trajectory). Vivian discovers a VHS recording of a prior performance of “Macbeth,” in which the actress playing Lady Macbeth appears to be murdered. Maybe you can guess who’s getting cast as the Lady Queen this year.

The film lopes along with an earnestness that belies the sheer goofiness of the whole scenario. “A Haunting in Cawdor” is, at various times, a psychological thriller, a summer camp movie, a giallo, a slasher, a ghost story, an indirect adaptation of “Macbeth,” and a meditation on the theater. That probably makes the film sound more interesting than it is. In practice, it’s a muddle of ideas and tones: a horror movie without any scares, a psychological drama without any compelling psychology, a film about the theater without any insights about performance.

Its sheer oddness does keep it from being dull exactly, and some of the acting, particularly from Young and even from Elwes, is actually pretty good. The film is mostly shot in underlit, grayish DV, though there are a few choice moments of giallo-esque color which point toward the kind of movie “Cawdor” could have been—a weird, gonzo genre pastiche—but Wurtzel is ultimately too restrained to overcome his obviously limited budget. If Wurtzel had embraced the fundamentally eccentric nature of his screenplay, “Cawdor” might have worked. Instead, it takes itself too seriously, without ever earning its seriousness.

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