By SHAWN MACOMBER
Starring Evan Ross, Dominique Provost-Chalkley and Danny Glover
Written and directed by Matthew Currie Holmes
“The Devil,” the 17th-century English poet George Herbert mused, “divides the world between atheism and superstition.” But what if the border between these two warring worldviews is actually wider and more porous than partisans of either side preferred to admit? What if when you attempted to straddle that line, hell came right up and tapped you on the shoulder, a gaggle of albino cannibals, witches, lantern-toting ghosts and other malevolent entities in tow? What if these inexplicable, implacable forces dared you to reassess your most fundamental beliefs even as you struggled to survive their wanton cruelty?
Such is the dark, intriguing philosophical and cinematic territory writer/director Matthew Currie Holmes deftly navigates in THE CURSE OF BUCKOUT ROAD, a mix of kaleidoscopic, surrealistic, time-hopping horror and impressively nuanced explorations of our most enduring existential conundrums. Think WAXWORK by way of THE LAST EXORCISM by way of URBAN LEGEND, and you’ll be in the neighborhood.
Here’s the lay of the haunted, defiling land: Aaron Powell (Evan Ross) has been away at the Naval Postgraduate School earning a dual master’s degree in philosophy and religious studies. That’s the kind of thing you’re inclined to pursue, one imagines, if you grew up in a town with a thoroughfare that not only has a rep as “the most haunted road in New York State,” but more lingering urban legends than street signs. Maybe that’s why dude doesn’t look all that pleased to be back when he steps off the bus for a visit with Dr. Lawrence Powell (Danny Glover), the ex-preacher grandfather who became a psychologist and raised Aaron after the boy’s mother died.
The pair, we learn, have a tense relationship, but Aaron will soon have more to worry about than awkward dinner spats with gramps and unpleasant memories of childhood traumas. The inexplicable suicide of a local humanities professor (Mayko Nguyen) under extremely creepy circumstances has reignited fears that the many curses of Buckout Road are once again crossing the center line into our reality.
Almost from the jump, the young sailor is ensnared. While Dr. Powell is helping police with the psych end of the investigation, Aaron falls in with another of his patients, a winsome young Goth woman named Cleo (Dominique Provost-Chalkley), as well as her two stoner pals desperate to get their paws on the doc’s suicide files. The trio are students and had been shooting a documentary for the dead professor’s class as part of an assignment to explore the “creation and destruction of modern myth.” The plan was to debunk the Buckout Road legend (which is based on “real world” lore). Instead, they find themselves plunged into its myriad horrors at the most inopportune moments—experiences that seem to use their own fears to nudge them ever closer toward an all-too-familiar self-slaughter.
“We’re being punished for our project,” Cleo laments at one point. “You think we hurt evil’s feelings?” one of her perpetually knit-hat-clad partners scoffs. “C’mon!” “What’s your explanation?” “Power of suggestion. We’re not cursed.” “But what if we are?” “But we’re not… Listen to yourself. There’s no evil. There’s no God. That’s why we did this project in the first place. Because I’m an atheist. And so are you.” Cleo replies, in a whisper so low she seems to be trying to keep her past skeptic self from hearing her present heresy: “Not anymore.”
The rest of the film certainly buttresses the case for believing in…something beyond our usual abilities of reason and comprehension. Whether that’s God or string theory or the reverberations of past evil in the present, however, remains tantalizingly open to interpretation.
Aaron, for his part, would prefer to simply get the hell out of Dodge, but you know how it goes with beguiling members of the opposite sex and deathless ancient evil entities: They can make it extraordinarily difficult to walk away. Once Aaron begins to share in the horrific visions, it’s clear he’ll need to vanquish demons both internal and external—not to mention Cleo’s passive-aggressive, increasingly sketchy cop dad (Henry Czerny)—if he ever wants to find an exit off Buckout Road.
In this way, THE CURSE OF BUCKOUT ROAD serves as a vehicle for a slew of efficient and imaginative scares and truly chilling sequences, as well as a meditation on belief and how it mutates and metamorphoses in the face of the unknown and under potentially lethal pressure. It is smartly scary and scary smart by turns—in other words, without ever completely abandoning that ’80s-horror sense of absurdity and humor that provides the audience the occasional reprieves to take it all in.