By GRACE DETWILER
Starring Niki McElroy, Todd Anthony, and Juhahn Jones
Written by Niki McElroy and Nathan Dalton
Directed by Dale Resteghini
A director can make or break a movie, whether or not its bones are strong. Luckily for SHADY GROVE, the film is built on a truly interesting concept – conceived by writers Nathan Dalton and Niki McElroy, who also stars in the film. Evident from the first frame, however, is the fact that SHADY GROVE does not quite work as a film, an assessment owed entirely to Dale Resteghini’s direction, (un)supported by cinematography by Jason Cowan. There are perhaps no two cinematic art forms more dissimilar than music videos and horror movies, and as SHADY GROVE makes clear, Resteghini got his start with the former. Unfortunately for the film, Resteghini’s filmmaking was unable to shed the trappings of his music video origins. Enough about Resteghini, though, because Niki McElroy is the only true reason to seek this film out on VOD.
SHADY GROVE opens with a scene of cult-like sacrifice; a woman gives birth while surrounded by figures in black, wearing masks made of the heads and skins of various livestock animals (a cow, a goat, a pig, etc.). While the mother and infant scream for one another, the cult members enclose the baby in a wooden box, nailing it shut. The film then cuts to our three protagonists: Shaina (Niki McElroy), her boyfriend Mark (Todd Anthony), and their best friend Eli (Juhahn Jones). After a night of partying at a music festival, the group travels to a remote cabin in the rural community of Shady Grove, where they plan to rest and recuperate before heading home.
On their way to the cabin, the three friends catch a glimpse of some of Shady Grove’s inhabitants, all white women; Shaina, Mark, and Eli, however, are black. After arriving at the cabin, Shaina and Mark head off to share a shower, while Eli drives back into town to pick up snacks for the group to share. Intercut with the couple’s sexy times in the shower, is the murder of a young man of color in the woods nearby, committed by the same masked figures from the film’s opening. While Eli is away, we learn two things: Shaina is pregnant with Mark’s child and has recently returned to him after having a brief fling with a woman. Shaina’s bisexuality will eventually become essential to the film’s outcome.
When Eli returns, he informs the couple that he has invited the hot store clerk, another white woman named Chloe, to party with them that evening. Chloe eventually arrives, bringing along her friend Taylor, also white, who flirts with Shaina – much to Mark’s chagrin. Shaina begins to feel unsafe in the cabin; she senses that they are being watched, and a strange smell emanates from the locked pantry. When Eli eventually goes missing, Shaina begins to become more suspicious of the townspeople’s intentions.
What makes SHADY GROVE interesting, however, is the truth revealed at the film’s conclusion. Shady Grove’s population is made up entirely of white women, who reproduce by drugging and raping men, in order to impregnate themselves. Then, any male babies that result, are “returned to the earth,” sacrificed to their twisted ‘feminist’ cause. The cult was only too happy to see a group of black individuals enter their territory, which they saw as a new opportunity to diversify their gene pool. Both male protagonists lose their lives to this scheme, while Shaina is allowed to stay and give birth to her daughter.
The film appears to be making a statement about the toxicity of white feminism and performative efforts to promote racial diversity. SHADY GROVE’s successes stem from both McElroy’s performance and her contributions to the script. Evoking references to You’re Next (visually), Get Out (conceptually), and cult/occult horror such as The Wicker Man or The House of the Devil, unfortunately, SHADY GROVE is woefully underwhelming compared to all of its influences. However, there is no denying the strength of the performances that carry the film, and the creativity of McElroy’s concept.
SHADY GROVE is available now on Digital and VOD.