SpookT had its world première on Sat 26 Aug at FrightFest
“You know, there’s a Greenville in every state,” says Rachel (Christen Sharice), on her YouTube Channel where she debunks paranormal phenomena, near the beginning of Tony Reames’ feature debut SpookT. She is about to head to Greenville, Pennsylvania, to investigate the disappearance, six years earlier, of young Flora Giddens (Quinn Reames) in the abandoned and supposedly haunted Gibson house, whose previous resident, Dr Bram Byler (Eric Roberts), aka the Greenville Butcher, had earlier died from his own self-inflicted surgical injuries.
Rachel’s words pin down the specific name of the community where she is headed from her Atlanta home, while also universalising it, as though to suggest that the kind of parochial paranoia and close-knit craziness that she intends to expose for her viewers could be anywhere in America. After all, doesn’t every small town have a creepy old house that locals know to avoid, like the Radley house in To Kill A Mockingbird (1962), the Klopeks’ residence in The ‘Burbs (1989) or the Nebbercracker place in Monster House (2006) – unkempt abodes surrounded as much by rumour and superstition as by cobwebs? And isn’t every off-road neighbourhood a locus of shared lore and mythology, rooted in buried histories and deep-set fears? So this Greenville is both a real borough on the map, and a fantasy zone representative of a broader American discomfort with the past, and with the darker, weirder deeds of the townsfolk.
Rachel is an outsider to Greenville, and a committed unbeliever, incapable of accepting the existence of anything supernatural. Yet as soon as realtor Mr Machen (Keith Brooks) lets her into the Gibson house, Rachel realises that she is not in fact alone, as there is another paranormal investigator, Claire (Haley Leary), also searching for any trace of Flora, at the request of Flora’s wayward mother Anne (Erin Brown). Claire is Rachel’s polar opposite – very much a local, and open-minded about the possibility of the paranormal – and the debates between these two young women about different kinds of scepticism form the barbed backbone of Torey Haas’ screenplay. For even as several local legends seem to be coming together, Rachel insists on rationalising any strange occurrences in or out of the house, while ‘Claire-voyant’ (as Rachel disparagingly calls her) refuses to be dismissive of the community’s weird vibe. After all, this is a place where young people commit suicide or vanish, where a weird faceless doll appears wherever Rachel goes, where Machen sports the dresses of his dear-departed wife, and where, despite the veneer of insular conservative respectability, the town’s revered élites meet for nocturnal orgies.
“It’s pretty banged up, but so am I,” says widower Mr Machen of the old VCR that he lends Claire. “Banged up things work. I got this back in ’84. Watched this Bill Murray film. Bill Murray, he’s an actor, not on that TikTok.” Even as he strives to educate, not entirely articulately, a representative of Zoomer culture on the abiding value of things that have become obsolete and ossified, Machen himself is still stuck in his past and his grief: not only in the cruelly severed marriage that he would do anything to revive, even improve, but also in the Eighties of his youth. In Greenville, history – and old museum pieces – persist, sending their staticky signals into the present, and while Rachel tries to make a YouTube video (a marker of her generation) dispelling the borough’s old myths, she will find herself ever more trapped in an uncanny scenario right out of an Eighties film like Lucio Fulci’s The House By The Cemetery or Gary Sherman’s Dead & Buried (both 1981). You see, all of America has a past, often unsavoury if not utterly rotten, which lives on down the generations, perhaps forever.
strap: Tony Reames’ feature debut places two clashing gen-Z paranormal investigators in a small town’s (maybe) haunted house, mythic to its foundations
© Anton Bitel