The opening titles of Ash and Bone are impressionistically intercut with images of a young, terrified woman (Denise Emilia Sandulescu) with a splash of blood on her white top, as she limps through dark woods, and flags down a car only to realise – too late – that her pursuers are inside. She is summarily shot, and then, lying on the road, is finished off with a mattock. This introduction, though launching the viewer us in media res without context, offers a clear enough direction of travel: there are bad, brutal people out here with murder on their mind, and young women need to be on their toes.
Lucas Vanderbilt (played by the film’s director Harley Wallen) is travelling northwest from Detroit back to his childhood home of Hadley Lake, with his second wife Sarah (Kaiti Wallen) and his emo teen daughter Cassie (Angeline Danielle Cama). The purpose of the trip is to get Cassie out of the city where her teen rebellion has recently become alarmingly delinquent in nature, and hopefully to bring a thaw to her frosty relationship with her new stepmother. Still upset by the death of her mother, and cutting herself off from the world with her headphones, Cassie is bored, rude and aggressive. The very first night they arrive at the family cabin, she steals Lucas’ car and heads to the local bar, where, desperate for illicit stimulation, she convinces locals Anna (Jamie Bernadette) and Tucker (Mason Heidger) to take her to the town’s creepiest place, the old McKinley house on the outskirts of town, where reclusive adult siblings Clete (Jimmy Doom) and May (Erika Hoveland) are rumoured to be behind a series of missing persons cases.
When the trio breaks in, they quickly discover evidence that the rumours are true: May and Clete have been abducting young female drifters and runaways, and then filming what they do to them in their basement. And now the unhinged brother and sister are determined to silence the three home invaders before their secret gets out, and maybe to have a little fun doing so. Yet as they end up at the Vanderbilts’ cabin, they may have met their match.
Ash and Bone starts off cannibalising tropes from Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), here translocated to Michigan, as the perverse backwoods McKinley siblings prey on passers-by whom they rape, torture, murder and sometimes even eat, while, Psycho-like, keeping their grandmother’s skeleton upstairs. Yet even as the film traces the atrocities of a poor rural family who have long since broken bad and gone utterly beyond the pale, it simultaneously follows a second, more urban, civilised family, and its adolescent member already setting out on her own path to criminality. Cassie is looking for trouble, and when the McKinleys threaten her father, she finds a release for her rage, and takes a bite of the apple that the McKinleys have long since swallowed. So although this is, like Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972) or Meir Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave (1978), a mean-spirited battle royale between two different socioeconomic classes, it is also a clash of the sociopaths, like Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion’s Becky (2020), here reimagined to pit teen, wrathful Cassie against crazed hicks rather than white supremacists.
While Bret Miller’s screenplay can be on the perfunctory side, bringing a goofiness to the McKinley siblings that belies their vicious depravity and letting the Vanderbilts’ dysfunctional dynamic occasionally ease into soapiness, there is some great character acting on the periphery of these two families – especially from Mel Novak as a bartender, Jerry Hayes as a gun shop owner, Calhoun Koenig as Cassie’s Detroit friend Tina and Shane Hagedorn as the town sheriff. “We do have our share of issues out here,” the sheriff will say – and sure enough, Ash and Bone reveals a small town’s hidden problems and buried mysteries. A sequel is already in pre-production.
strap: Harley Wallen’s small-town serial killer thriller is a tale of two dysfunctional families coming into violent collision.
© Anton Bitel