Written by: Matt Molgaard
Directed by: John William Holt
Cast: Bill Oberst Jr., Austin Madding, Abby Murphy
Well, I finally found a movie as strange as Phantasm. Like Don Coscarelli’s insanely weird cult classic, John William Holt’s The Dooms Chapel Horror attempts the same approach: throw 15 different and random horrific ideas into a massive cauldron, and stir away until it comes together to make some strange (even if flimsy) degree of sense.
Unlike Coscarelli’s Phantasm, The Dooms Chapel Horror isn’t going to be a classic, and it isn’t going to win over too many fans. Because unlike Coscarelli’s film, it’s a dreadfully amateur production that falls apart after the first act.
It’s unfortunate, because the first 20 or 30 minutes are really quite engaging. The film opens with a look at the healthy, hometown hero Ryan Cole working on his farm, hunting, being social – he’s the typical all American small town stud – the hero of high school football, the one guy in a one horse town guaranteed to be special and move on to big things. Until an accident on the farm leaves him in a heap of shredded flesh, blood, brain and bone. All because his little brother, Kyle wouldn’t put down his camera and lend a hand.
Or so we’re supposed to think.
The fact that Kyle feels some guilt over his brother’s passing feels normal and accurate, but the manner in which the town turns on him after the accident isn’t quite as normal. But we don’t see the torment that follows Kyle through his teenage years, because we leap ahead 10 or 15 years, where a grown Kyle is being filmed for a documentary. The purpose of the documentary is never clearly illustrated, and neither are Kyle’s motivations for leaving his new home – in the big city – for a return to the small town that left him a cracked shell of his once innocent former self.
That’s where all the promise detonates with an underwhelming pop and an unraveling of logic.
Back in Kyle’s little hometown everything goes haywire. There’s a cult that live out in the woods… but we don’t see any member of the cult outside of the leader and what seems to be his son… until the final five or 10 minutes of the movie. Everyone in the town save for a friend or two seem to hate Kyle and still blame him for his brother’s death. There’s some form of monster roaming about in the woods. We learn that Kyle made some form of “deal with the Devil” so to speak, basically assembling a list of everyone who ever tormented him, a list that he takes to Jordan, the leader of the cult. Those people end up dead, but not by Jordan’s hand…
I don’t even know how to continue on with my breakdown of the film. That’s not even the entirety of the strangeness… it just… keeps going. And then there’s the wretched execution of the flick. It opens in found footage format, then transitions into mockumentary, and continues to bounce back and forth between the two. That’s a method we’ve seen executed in a handful of excellent films, most noteworthy may be Carlo Ledesma’s criminally underrated 2011 offering, The Tunnel.
Now, back to the misfiring: apparently somewhere along the way director Holt seems to forget that he needs to justify the filming format in believable fashion. Suddenly there are cameras everywhere. As the second act winds down and the third gets moving it seems everyone in the film has a camera either in their hand, affixed to a gun, or attached to their persons, somehow… despite the fact that the vast majority have absolutely nothing to do with the making of the “documentary.” There are even random “deer cams” and “field cams” located out in the woods that everyone is so terrified of entering because there’s an enormous monster hanging out somewhere. Who had the pair to go out and set these cameras up, and are they all operated remotely, exclusively? It’s all so weird it’s hard to wrap my head around it.
If we’re going to continue talking weird, we’ve obviously got to talk about the “monster” in the woods, as well. Is it a big foot? Is it a killer tree? We don’t know because we never actually see it. We see a split second of what appear to be teeth, then a split second of what appears to be an enormous (far, far bigger than those teeth) tree-like… hand? Foot? I don’t know what the hell it was, to be honest with you. The special effects are practical… but they’re just old school H.G. Lewis style blood and guts, for the most part, which is fine and respectable, but there’s certainly nothing to brag about with the “monster” because it literally has about 1.25 seconds of screen time, in the dark. No, I’m not joking.
The positives of the film are few and far between, but they certainly deserve a nod of appreciation. For one, Bill Oberst Jr. brings his patented creepiness and abundant confidence to the role of the cult leader. No matter the size of the production, Oberst Jr. always gives it his all. That, I can appreciate. I can also tip the hat to virtual unknown Austin Madding, who plays Kyle with all he’s got. Abby Murphy delivers her lines with passion, despite being given little to really work with. I suppose the cast as a whole step up to at least try to create a memorable film… it’s unfortunate that the technical faults are so glaring.
I’ve got to point out another oddity. Having wrapped the previous paragraph, curiosity led me to make a quick scan of other reviews of the film, and they’re perplexing. Bloody Disgusting praised the hell out of the pic, calling it “exceptional small town horror” before awarding it a 3.5/5 star rating. Horror-movies.ca lets their readers know that “in the bottomless sea of found footage films it’s difficult to find ones that are made with such passion,” (I feel sorry for the wealth of awesome found footage films they’ve clearly missed) before also rewarding it a 3.5/5 star rating. Killerreviews.com labeled it a “must see.” Horror Society gifted it a near perfect 9 out of 10 score. It’s hard to find a site that didn’t deem the movie an awesome affair.
What movie did these critics watch? It was quite clearly not the same film that myself, my wife and a close friend just checked out. Because my wife and my friend, they totally and completely checked out by the midway point (technically speaking, my wife nodded off), and I would have certainly done the same had I not hung on for the purpose of writing this review. And all that comes from a genuine fan of Bill Oberst Jr. (I still love ya, Bill), who really, really wanted to enjoy this picture.
I understand that this was a passion project for John William Holt, but technically speaking it’s an utter mess. On top of the issues I’ve already pointed out (if you watch film with an analytical eye the inconsistencies in format alone will drive you up a wall) there are poor transitions, a shaky (at very, very best) script, an inconsistent sound mix and a radically erratic pace. The movie starts on an explosive note, becomes muddled, fumbling all over itself, attempts to regain its footing and finally crumbles to pieces during what should be the most gratifying portion of the picture. I’m bummed to say it, but the best thing about The Dooms Chapel Horror is the beautiful vintage poster.