A Haunting In Cawdor (2015)

First published by Sight & Sound, November 2015

Synopsis: Cawdor, Michigan, 2014. Abused throughout her childhood, convicted of manslaughter, and in an out of psych wards, 21-year-old Vivian Miller attends the Barn Theatre for a three-month work release programme. Camp coordinator and theatre organiser Lawrence O’Neil proposes staging Macbeth for the first time in 20 years, casting Vivian as Lady Macbeth. Fellow inmate Brian takes an unwanted sexual interest in Vivian, while she is also occasionally visited by new friend Roddy, who is looking for a position at the Theatre. Vivian keeps seeing and hearing the apparition of Jeanette, who had disappeared two decades earlier after playing Lady Macbeth. Vivian’s psychiatrist puts her back on meds. Via an old VHS recording, Jeanette asks Vivian directly for help from a sinister hooded male. One night Vivian screams upon discovering someone in her bed – but there is no-one there. After rehearsing a scene in which Lady Macbeth sees blood on her hands, and almost getting brained by a mysteriously falling spotlight, Vivian too hallucinates blood on her hands. Brian tries to grope Vivian at a party and, kicked out, dies after being pushed onto a woodchipper by a hooded figure. When Vivian accuses Lawrence of killing Jeanette, he reveals that it was his son, Roddy, who had died (from suicide). Removing his hood, lovesick Roddy’s ghost tries to strangle Vivian in jealousy (as he had Jeanette), but is stabbed by Jeanette’s ghost. The investigating police find only static on the VHS.

Review: “What’s done cannot be undone,” says Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare’s Macbeth (5.1.63-64), driven to madness (and soon to suicide) by the ineradicable stain of guilt for murders that she has herself instigated. It is a line that 21-year-old Vivian Miller (Shelby Young) is shown repeating several times in Phil Wurtzel’s A Haunting In Cawdor. Herself medicated for mental illness and guilty of a murder (plea-bargained to homicide) committed six years earlier, Vivian has now been assigned along with other young offenders to a three-month work release programme at the Barn Theatre on the outskirts of fictitious Cawdor (named for the setting of Macbeth), Michigan, where middle-aged, one-time Tony award winner Lawrence O’Neil (Cary Elwes) uses drama as a form of therapy for the inmates. Lawrence is restaging the Scottish play for the first time in two decades, in an attempt to exorcise not only his wards’ demons but also some of his own. Yet cast as ‘psychotic murderer’ Lady Macbeth in the ‘cursed’ Shakespearean play which, with its witches and ghosts and pervasive sense of doom, comes closest to the horror genre, Vivian finds herself haunted not only by the rôle, but also by the traumas of her own past and the unrestful ghosts of Lawrence’s previous production (which ended in a real tragedy).

Shot on location at the Barn Theatre in Augusta, Michigan, and made back to back with Wurtzel’s documentary The Barn Theatre: Tomorrow’s Stars Today (2015), A Haunting In Cawdor may sound on paper a little like Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing’s The Gallows (2015) – which also concerned the fateful reprise of a haunted production – but Wurtzel’s feature eschews that film’s cheap jump shocks, sensationalist thrills and strict found footage format, preferring to use a barebones ghost story to explore the ‘magical’ properties of impersonation, and the liberating catharsis of performance. In this respect, it falls into line with a body of recent films – Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman: Or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014), Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), Miike Takashi’s Over Your Dead Body (2014) and Isabel Coixet’s Another Me (2013) – all with narratives unfolding around theatrical productions, and concerned with the shifting borders between staged fictions and real life.

The question of whether Vivian’s consciousness is being possessed by her own PTSD and medication, by the spirit of previous ‘lady queen’ Jeanette (Alexandria Deberry), or by the play itself (whose witches, distorted by in-camera effects, regularly appear to her), ensure that the plot here remains ambiguous, overdetermined and irrational. Still the play’s the thing: whether rehearsed live on stage or seen in staticky old VHS recordings, Macbeth in its many variations and iterations here represents a mysterious world of enactment and imagination where the buried past keeps being repeated in the present, where ghosts of the dead return, and where, in the rôle of others, the players can (maybe) find themselves. Think of this ‘prison drama’ as Caesar Must Die (2012) – only with added spooks and a wood chipper from the horror genre.

Anton Bitel