If it seems like we’re turning into an unofficial PR arm for Ryan Callaway and his “micro-budget” film production outfit, Shady Dawn Pictures, around this place, rest assured that we’re (or, rather, I’m) not, but when Callaway took notice of my reviews of a couple of his previous efforts and found them to be fair-minded appraisals of his work, he hooked my up with a digital “screener” for his latest (the first film with a 2017 release date reviewed for this site), Where Demons Dwell : The Girl In The Cornfield 2, which will be available via any number of so-called “home viewing platforms” later this month (hopefully he’ll drop by the comments section here with more specific details when he knows them). Now, I get folks sending me their “homemade horrors” all the time, and I generally do watch them — or start to, at any rate, as in all honesty they’re not always worth finishing — but I always feel a bit nervous about reviewing them. By and large these truly independent efforts represent someone sinking their life savings (however meager it may be) into a project, and are therefore genuine “labors of love,” so I play it a bit differently than I do with a Hollywood flick : if I like it, I’ll review it, but if I don’t like it, or have a mixed opinion on it, I’ll refrain from trashing the film in public and simply pass on my thoughts privately to the director. Sometimes I make an exception if the flick in question is so bad that I think its would-be auteur needs to be told in no uncertain terms to give it up and find something else to do with his or her life, but that’s only happened a few times over the years, as it’s truly rare to find something with absolutely nothing going for it on any level. All of which is my way of saying, if you get ahold of me on twitter or via email to set me up with a “screener,” know that these are my “house rules” going in. Callaway, however, made it clear that he welcomed my review of his new project, regardless of whether the final verdict was good, bad, or somewhere in-between, so hey — credit where it’s due, the guy is willing to let his work stand or fall on its own merits.
And, truth be told, Where Demons Dwell : The Girl In The Cornfield 2 actually does have plenty of merit in its favor. The film is well-shot, generally well-acted, and has a more polished and professional look than many flicks with a similar budget (which I believe in this case was around $40,000, if I remember correctly). It also has some “knocks”going against it, as well, but we’ll get to all that in short order. If you’re even passingly familiar with the world of “micro-budget” horror filmmaking you know that none of these things are anything like a “perfect” movie simply because — well, shit, they can’t afford to be. The key, then, is to judge ’em all on, frankly, a fair generous curve that acknowledges their potential and balances that reasonably equally with their execution. Flaws are to be expected, but if they’re too glaring — or, worse yet, if they actively hinder your ability to suspend your disbelief and literally “take you out of the movie” — well, then you’ve gotta call ’em out on it. My time may be for sale — on the cheap, some would argue — but my conscience? I like to think there’s no price tag attached to that. But then, I would say that, wouldn’t I?
Our story this time out is largely focused on the “sole survivor” of the previously-reviewed-around-these-parts (and available for free on Amazon Prime) first film, Tiffany (played by Madeline Lupi), who lost her older sister after a particularly harrowing series of encounters with the titular girl in the cornfield herself (Mollie Sperduto), and is looking to place her loss into some sort of context by tracking down anyone else who may have crossed paths with this reasonably ethereal presence. Enter — after a bit — one Adelaide Russo (Michelle Lulic) and her sister, Abigail (Alex Santoleri), whose family is apparently being “spirit-stalked” in a similar manner, and who could use a little help from the closest thing to an “expert” on these matters there is before they all end up meeting an untimely fate themselves. Again, as you’ve no doubt been able to discern, we’ve got a largely-female cast here, with the patriarch of the Russo clan, Jack (Hiram Ortiz), being the most notable male figure among the principles involved — but even he plays a very secondary fiddle to the ladies here. And, it must be said, most of ’em show a reasonable-enough handle on “Acting 101” basics despite more than likely having no formal training in the field. There are some rough patches, sure, but nothing anyone needs to be overly-embarrassed about, and a few of these folks — particularly Lupi — might have a chance at that ever-elusive “future in the business” if they really dig in and learn to both expand and apply their craft.
That statement is also true of our writer/director and his production partner/wife, Amy. They seem to be making a decent enough go of it with their New Jersey-based efforts, and are having better luck than many when it comes to hustling up financing, but you’ve gotta think that they’re chasing for a bigger break somewhere down the line. I don’t know how many people watch your average Shady Dawn production, but I’m thinking that it probably numbers in the low-thousands, and no matter how much you might love making art for its own sake, the simple truth is that you’re not gonna keep doing that forever when there are bills to pay and mouths to feed. I don’t know if the Callaways entertain dreams of taking their act to Tinseltown or if they harbor more modest aims such as making a go of it doing local commercials or corporate promotional and/or training films or whatever in Jersey, but they’re clearly trying to show that they can “do more” with films such as this one, which tells a rather sprawling and expansive story (with an equally large cast) and clocks in at damn near two and a half hours in length. That’s definitely ambitious — but in this case it’s also slightly problematic.
We all love character development and the like, but if there’s one thing Where Demons Dwell : The Girl In The Cornfield 2 suffers from, it’s putting us a bit too deeply inside the day-today lives of any number of its characters and taking some of the focus away from the central threat as it fleshes out almost everything else it can about almost everybody concerned. I respect the fact that our “other Ryan C.” has some serious themes and issues he wants to try to tackle here and that he’s doing his level best to show that you don’t need a ton of money to tell a “big” story. He’s living proof that imagination trumps resources and that character-driven horror trumps cheaper and more plentiful scares. The “slow burn” is great — and I welcome more of it in genre cinema — but you have to be careful lest it fizzles out entirely. I’m pleased to say it doesn’t here, but that’s largely due to a generally-satisfying and smartly-structured “third act” that pulls you back into the proceedings after the lengthy “middle act” nearly loses you. A tighter, “leaner and meaner” script, then, might be something worth striving for next time around.
On a purely technical level, there’s plenty to admire here, as Callaway serves up some impressively-staged shots and continues to develop his visual storytelling skills, showing a far greater command this time out as far as lighting, blocking, and other vital aspects of the director’s “toolkit” are concerned. But if there’s going to be a Girl In The Cornfield 3 — a possibility that’s definitely left open by the “resolution” to this one — paring down the scope of the production may not be such a bad idea. I realize that sounds kinda strange when you’re talking about a super-low-budget flick, but there’s something to be said for doing less and doing it all well rather than doing too much for too long. Ryan Callaway has shown here that he’s not afraid to extend his reach beyond what circumstances dictate he “should” be able to do, and for that he deserves much credit — but now that we know how many things he can do reasonably well, I’d like to see him “zero in” on what he thinks he could be well and truly great at and craft a script that plays to his genuine strengths, rather than one that simply showcases his many abilities.