Wednesday, October 3, 2018

John Oak Dalton's The Girl in the Crawlspace

Cody takes a look at an Indiana indie directed by John Oak Dalton.

A serial killer abducting a young woman and keeping her captive in the crawlspace of his home is the perfect set-up for a low budget indie horror film. It's simple and economical, an intense story told with just two characters in one location. But instead of telling that story with his directorial debut The Girl in the Crawlspace, John Oak Dalton (who has a lot of experience in the low budget indie world, having written over a dozen films for notable directors like Henrique Couto, who produced this film, and Mark Polonia) chose to make that his movie's back story. The film begins the moment Jill McBain (Erin R. Ryan) escapes from the killer's crawlspace and runs off into the Indiana countryside.

Before the killer can go after his escaped captive, we're told that he was taken out of the equation in an off screen shootout with town marshal Woody (Tom Cherry). Dalton didn't go an obvious route with this one, he had a more intriguing idea in mind. One that involves therapist Kristen (Joni Durian), who recently moved back to their small Indiana town from California, and Kristen's husband, screenwriter Johnny (John Bradley Hambrick), a guy who comes off as an insufferable big city douche from the moment we meet him.

Having spent seven years in captivity, Jill has trouble adjusting to being back in the outside world, so Woody asks Kristen to help her out. While Kristen is learning more about Jill through their therapy sessions, trying to decipher what were real experiences and what are the imaginings of a traumatized girl, Johnny is finding out more about Jill by attending meetings that he tells his wife are AA meetings but are actually gatherings of a group that plays a Dungeons and Dragons type game. A group Jill was a part of before her abduction.

When I first heard about The Girl in the Crawlspace, I definitely didn't expect it to be packed with RPG talk and references to Italian cinema. (Jill is such a big fan of spaghetti Westerns that she even ran a blog dedicated to the genre and wrote fan fiction.) But there they were, and I was fascinated by the way this movie was defying expectations. While characters focused on games, films, screenwriting, and a non-existent Mission: Impossible movie, no obviously deadly threat was presenting itself, and yet it was clear that something terrible was going to happen by the end. That was one expectation I fully trusted The Girl in the Crawlspace to meet.

It did, and caught me totally off-guard in the process.

The Girl in the Crawlspace is a really great debut for Dalton, and the sort of movie that carries the personal stamp of its writer/director in a major way. Nobody else would have told this story in the way Dalton did.

He also assembled a great cast to bring his story to life. I may not have liked the character of Johnny very much, but Hambrick played him well and kept me wondering what this guy was really up to. Ryan and Durian have been two of my favorite indie actresses for a while now, so getting them to play the two female leads was a very wise choice. The actors in the RPG group made their characters fun to watch, and Cherry did fine work in the role of Woody.

The one thing that felt off about the cast wasn't due to any of the performances, but a line where Kristen says she went to high school with Woody, even though Cherry is substantially older than Durian. The only way they could have been in high school together would be if Woody had been a teacher, unless Kristen has some kind of Countess Bathory inspired secret of slowing her aging process. But that's not the movie's horrific twist.

That one line took me out of things a bit, but aside from that I found The Girl in the Crawlspace to be a very impressive, engrossing viewing experience.

It's also one I could relate to, having spent a lot of time in the sort of Indiana small town that it's set in. I know these farmland sights, have heard the conversations about Amish people buying up properties. It was fun to see and hear these things in a movie.

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