In the interest of not discouraging a nascent filmmaker from taking on the herculean task of getting his second feature film made, let’s focus on the positives of “Autumn Road,” a belated Halloween horror story built around twins and their family’s “haunted house” attraction.
The father figure in Riley Cusick‘s debut feature lectures kids –one of them his son — about the secret to setting up and presenting an annual haunted house, something he’s been doing for years.
“‘Haunting,'” he says, “is all about the right mood.” He’s talking about tone, getting people in the right frame of mind to be receptive to frights.
“Autumn Road” gets that right. It’s somber and sad and the deaths, when they come, are shocking enough and downright depressing.
But that isn’t a product of character development and building empathy so much as simple surprise. We really don’t see most of them coming.
The movie’s a wash, and worse — too slow, not particularly well-acted or scripted. But there’s a little something to it, so no quick write-off here.
That fatherly “haunting” advice sets up a night of trick-or-treating for little Winnie (Maddy-Lea Hendrix) and twin brothers Charlie and Vincent (Ranger Lerway and Jonas Lerway).
But shy, bespectacled Charlie bows out, and Vincent takes over the night. Only later does Winnie reconnect with her tweenage crush Charlie to show off the pocket watch she got instead of candy at one house. Only later does her nut allergy kick in from the treats, which she was being super-selective in picking out. Not careful enough.
Charlie panics, and Vincent steps in with an “I’ll take care of it.” Winnie is never seen again.
Years later, failing actress Laura (Lorelei Linklater, daughter of famed filmmaker Richard Linklater) is just getting a handle on making her own break in show business when her best bud dies. She flees back to her hometown.
That’s where she reconnects with Charlie. And that’s where she runs afoul of Vincent. Laura was Winnie’s older sister. And the brothers (both played by writer-director Cusick) have grown up to be even more nervous and/or creepier than she remembers them.
Vincent’s the sort that earns words of warning from mutual acquaintances.
“There’s something seriously wrong with him, Charlie.” Like they’re telling Charlie something he doesn’t know.
In town, Vincent’s remembered for killing a bird, which explains his favorite haunted house mask, an owl. He’s hotheaded, impulsive. And since we remember that first scene, we know what the beady-eyed creep is capable of.
Most of what’s here sits on a sliding cinematic scale of “Well, that doesn’t quite work.” The snail’s pace at which this new threat to Charlie and Vincent’s “secret” is identified and attacked is sleep inducing.
Whatever cleverness floats through “Autumn Road,” Cusick’s middling performance in the co-leads undermines it. He doesn’t have that charisma that the camera brings out, either as a wuss or the neighborhood psychopath.
The screenplay toys with supernaturalism (What IS the deal with the watch?) and settles for something even less interesting. The best line concern’s “nice twin” Charlie’s choice of libation.
“Bad people drink hot chocolate, too.”
“No, they don’t.”
And the violence, sometimes foreshadowed, sometimes seemingly random, is jolting. And that both fits the picture’s forlorn mood, and shakes it up.
So no, the picture isn’t a total write-off. Even dead ends like “Autumn Road” can have their moments.
Cast: Lorelei Linklater, Riley Cusick, Maddy-Lea Hendrix
Credits: A Gravitas Ventures release.
Running time: 1:33