By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Drew Matthews, Ryan Davenport and Sarah Cochrane
Directed by Clayton Witmer
Written by Clayton Witmer and Chelsey Cummings
To get one potential issue out of the way up front: THE ARBORS runs just a hair short of two hours, which for an independent production can signal, at the least, a lack of discipline. THE ARBORS is nothing if not disciplined, however; it’s a carefully controlled, well-thought-out and finely crafted film that’s being sold as a monster movie but is really a disquieting mood piece.
Shot in rural North Carolina with an immediate sense of place, THE ARBORS (now on VOD) stars Drew Matthews as Ethan, who doesn’t have a lot of direction in his own existence. His job of an on-call locksmith has him sometimes keeping a vampire schedule, and his social life consists largely of visiting his brother Shane (Ryan Davenport), Shane’s wife Lynn (Lexi Rose) and their daughter Robin (Sarah Cochrane). From the opening minutes, you know you’re in the hands of a good, instinctive filmmaker: Clayton Witmer, who scripted with Chelsey Cummings. Well-chosen shots and reveals and little details of behavior and performance let us know everything we need to about this family and their relationships. While Shane has a stable job and family life, Ethan is still stuck in the past, yearning for the brotherly closeness he once enjoyed with Shane in childhood. He was clearly once more social than he is now–Robin adores him, and an old flame back in town is anxious to reconnect–but at this point, Ethan seems detached from emotion and purpose.
He finds the latter, of a sort, when he comes upon a dead deer in the road in the middle of the night, and when he pulls it off onto the grass, he notices a strange, many-legged creature scuttling inside the carcass. Taking it home, he keeps it as a sort of pet, albeit one that gives him a gash in the hand that refuses to heal. Could it have something to do with a bunch of guys in hazmat suits he saw on a previous drive? Or has it arrived as an avatar of his unconscious, since it’s soon large enough to kill humans and its victims are people Ethan doesn’t like?
There’s a teasing, and pleasing, ambiguity to the way Witmer presents the monster, which is seen only in brief glimpses (this could also have been a budgetary concession; Witmer created the effects as well). What’s clear is that it’s a genuine threat, and suspense is built simply by having Ethan babysit Robin at his place while the thing is–apparently–secured in his garage. As the local body count mounts and other townspeople begin to question who’s responsible, Ethan keeps the deadly secret even from his own kin and falls under suspicion himself, leading to a well-staged nighttime pursuit sequence with a great scare at the end.
THE ARBORS has clearly been made on modest means, but is uncommonly well-realized; Jonathan McCarter contributes evocative production design, Ayinde Anderson’s fine cinematography evokes a sense of true menacing night and suburban loneliness and it’s all backed by a terrific, alternately eerie and jittery score by Benjamin Hoff. The acting is naturalistic and sensitive to all the emotional beats of Witmer and Cummings’ script; the way one character expresses grief late in the film is especially well-caught. That’s crucial in a movie that’s more concerned with its people than its monster, and what its killing spree means to Ethan and those around him.
As the film continues, there are strong hints that the story is going to head in a certain direction–and then, around the 75-minute mark, there’s a scene that seems to confirm it’s not going there after all. THE ARBORS keeps you off balance like that throughout, and right up to the end, it doesn’t offer easy answers. But its questions are tantalizing and creepy enough to keep you absorbed for the entirety of its running time.