After a family's "black sheep" aunt passes away, they're reluctant and creeped out to receive her cremated ashes. But when a series of strange, supernatural misfortunes beset them, they'll have to go through hell to be rid of her angry spirit once and for all.
Jeremy Isaiah Earl
The story follows a regular suburban family, headed by mother Ellyn (Elizabeth Keener – sister to Oscar-nominee Catherine Keener) and father Duane (Jeremy Isaiah Earl) as they deal with some very strange occurrences in their home and their life, after they’ve taken possession of the ashes of Ellyn’s paternal Aunt Marion (Melinda DeKay). Also in the mix are Ellyn and Duane’s grown daughters, Camille (Angelique Maurnae) and Melanie (Yumarie Morales). Over a week’s time, the household will fall into chaos as the family tries to appease what they believe to be the very angry spirit of Aunt Marion.
It’s always something of a downer when a film takes its time to perfectly establish characters, relationships and some legit tension – only to make some poor choices later on in the story, where these lovely details are tossed aside, allowing the story and audience experience to sort of crumble away.
While Ashes is a horror film, it’s still established that these are real people, albeit ones who use humor to get through tough times, such as the ones illustrated here.
But with all that goes on, there are never the intrusions of outside parties – i.e. city authorities like police, or other emergency workers. Once things in the climax start to cook, and the craziness amps up in the house – in real life, there would be an intervention by the authorities. Even a passing police officer checking on the house might have been enough to help sell the fact that these people live in the real world. But there’s nothing, and it hurts the film’s credibility.
The film also takes place over about a week’s worth of time, and to see injuries or mental trauma so easily swiped aside, scene to scene – well, it starts to defy reality. There’s only so much “suspension of disbelief” you can expect from your audience.
I also had a problem with the turnaround on the character of Ty (Damien Diaz) – Melanie’s boyfriend. I get that the presence of Aunt Marion’s ashes in the house, makes for plenty of terrible events, but what occurs between Melanie and Ty really felt like it came from out of nowhere. A tiny clue-in about Ty’s potential “activities” would have gone a long way in making this all more plausible. As is, I was taken aback by the couple’s argument and subsequent fall-out.
From the get-go, I was truly on board with this family. They’re likable, realistic and sorta goofy.
The film establishes early on (in part because of the film’s “mockumentary/interview” motif) that there will be plenty of humor. But when things turn dark and dangerous, this tone feels out of place. These folks don’t necessarily react to the harrowing terror, in ways that real people would.
I was impressed with the ensemble cast. Again, I believed this family – and that’s a credit to the film’s writing (at least early on) and to the performances.
Although I liked most of the work by this cast, I had trouble buying their reactions to some of the darker events of the film – particularly as the supernatural craziness was amped up in the third act. What are potentially emotionally devastating setbacks, are at times met with the aforementioned humor. I couldn’t buy this in all of these situations. But I don’t fault the actors here… it’s a problem with direction. I’m like a broken record, but I have to again go back to “real world” problems.
The film borrows from other supernatural thrillers – everything from the Paranormal Activity franchise, to Poltergeist to the Insidious franchise – and even The Evil Dead (a swiftly moving camera) and Witchboard. What sets it apart is the well-thought-out and nicely performed family dynamic.
There are some effective “boo” moments throughout, and as far as a true creep-out factor, the film’s flashbacks are the most powerful – as we see young Ellyn’s (Emma Mumford) interactions with Aunt Marion – when Ellyn was a teenager. The most difficult thing in these flashback sequences, finds Ellyn’s brother Jay (Michael Shacket) pulling a prank on Marion, resulting in humiliation and a feeling of deep sadness – on the part of the audience.
I didn’t care for the film’s multiple endings. Uncle Jay (Brandon Lamberty) appears in the beginning of the film and returns for the film’s climax – one of the several present here. There were about three moments which I assumed would be the film’s denoument, but then it kept going. Unless you’re 1982’s Poltergeist, I generally don’t like this trick. Pick one climax and make it truly great.
And these multiple endings are an additional symptom of the, “this film needs an injection of reality”.
Technically, the film’s pretty solid, but at times – I felt as if my eyes were straining to fully take in the picture. The overall lighting was generally too dark. I know it’s a horror flick, so darkness is a filmmakers’ friend, but if an audience is missing some things, that means you’ve gone too far.
Horror regular Maria Olsen has a small role as a longtime friend of Aunt Marion, who shows up at the family’s home – out of the blue. It’s a memorably creepy appearance, and I could have done with a bit more screen-time for Gail (Olsen’s character). And the girls’ reaction to Gail’s “special friend” relationship with Aunt Marion, is a gem.
The film’s tagline is “Laugh after death”. So that sets up the overall tone you should expect. But in the end, the film is unable to pull through with that humor intact. It’s a great way to set up this particular family’s way of life and the light-hearted bonds they share, but there needs to be some genuine, real world reactions and consequences paired with the supernatural events depicted here.
I can’t wholeheartedly recommend the film, due mainly to the tonal issues I’ve already outlined, but it’s still certainly worth a look. A 3.5-star review it is.
Ashes is still playing the festival circuit, so no wider release information is yet available.