DreadWorld Review: 'A Haunting in Cawdor' (2015/16)

I was never much of a theater guy. Back in my younger days being into theater had certain connotations if you were a young male. I'm happy to say that society has progressed past such ridiculous stereotypes, at least I think it has, and I'd like to think that were I 25 years or so younger, I would have dabbled in some high school theater productions. But just because I never dabbled, doesn't mean I'm ignorant to the theater, specifically, the works of William Shakespeare, even more specifically, Macbeth. It's important to understand Macbeth and the superstitions surrounding the famous, or infamous, depending on your point of view, play before watching Phil Wurtzel's A Haunting in Cawdor. 

To make a long story short, because of the plays rather morbid subject matter which includes various murders, madness, witches, and damning prophecies, many believe that Macbeth is cursed. The old superstition surrounding the play dictates that you should not utter the name of play at one of its productions, lest you curse the production and any number of ill things will befall the cast and crew. If you need further illustration, look for "The Simpsons" episode with Sir Ian McKellan, there's a hilarious bit where McKellan is repeatedly injured because America's favorite yellow family can't seem to understand the concept of the curse, saying the name of the play over and over again as terrible things keep happening to McKellan.

History lesson over, let's get back to the film, which starts with young Vivian Miller (Shelby Young "American Horror Story: Murder House") waiting at the bus stop for her ride to theater camp. There she meets local boy Roddy (Michael Welch, Twilight), who seems nice enough, but it's obvious there are quite a few skeletons in Vivian's closet. We find out a little bit when we learn that this is no regular theater camp. It's essentially a theater work release program for juvenile offenders. Vivian claims she's in for some ill advised burglary as a youth, but her unconvincing lying ability and some well placed flashbacks tell us that there is substantially more meat to Vivian's situation than she lets on.

Theater director Lawrence O'Neil (Cary Elwes, Saw), who also seems to have his fair share of skeletons in his own closet informs the gaggle of youthful offenders that this season the camp will be presenting MacBeth despite protests from certain people in O'Neil's inner circle. After a particularly moving audition, Vivian is cast as the tortured titular Lady, something that would seem to run counter productive with Vivian's current mental state. As the play get deeper into rehearsals, Vivian starts seeing things, hearing voices, and is generally starting to lose it. In order to vanquish the voices she must not only confront her own past, but those of director O'Neil and the very theater they are at.

Written and directed by Phil Wurtzel, A Haunting in Cawdor stands as a spooky love letter the the legendary Cawdor Theater in rural Michigan and to one of Shakespeare's master works in Macbeth. While certain films set at camps can feel weird geographically. Wurtzel does a great job of nailing down the geography of the theater and its surroundings so as a viewer you will never be asking: "Wait. Where are they and how did they get there so fast?" It's an important thing to do because a film like A Haunting in Cawdor requires your full attention. It's not as effective if you are constantly trying to figure out the geography of a particular scene.

Wurtzel's job was made easier by the skill of his lead actors. I shouldn't have to tell you that Cary Elwes is tremendous in the film. If you've seen Saw, Kiss the Girls, or any of his non-genre fare you know that he is one of the most underrated actors working today. His foil in the film, Miller, is up to the task of playing against such an experienced thespian as Elwes. Despite some thin scenarios she's given to work with, Miller consistently is able to convey the gravitas of her situation.

The film is not without issues. It feels as though Michael Welch's part should have been bigger. He pops up every now and then, and plays a big part in the third act, but he disappears for large stretches of the film. When it's finally time for him to contribute to the plot, he hasn't been established enough to care about. I don't know if scheduling was an issue for Welch, but he needed to be used more to better establish Roddy effectively.

Welch not being effectively established hinders an already very thin third act. Wurtzel tries to create the concept of two different worlds that exist at the same time with certain characters having the ability to cross between them, but again, it's something that isn't given the proper time to gestate before being dove into full bore in the films last 15 minutes.

A Haunting in Cawdor is well directed and very well acted. It misses the mark when it comes to some of the pacing and timing. It's not a very scary film, there are maybe two legitimate jump scares, but it does keep you feeling uneasy though most of it's 100 minute running time. If you are the type of person who wants their horror films doused in blood, then I would recommend sitting this one out. The body body count is kept as a minimum here. But if you are in the mood for a a tight ghost story type thriller with its backbone squarely in its love for the theater then A Haunting In Cawdor may be a film you would enjoy. Check it out this coming week in theaters across the country and also on demand March 11th.

*** stars out of *****

That;s it for me. As always, thanks for reading and "enjoy every sandwich."

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