First time directors often make horror films as a relatively cheap calling card. If you supply genre fans with the gore they desire, and if you get lucky, you can even make your money back. What’s very rare is an independent horror movie that delivers the goods and has an original idea.
Travis Betz, an Indiana University alum, spent two years making such a film, called Joshua . It revolves around a secret so repellant and demented, the well-adjusted need not apply. I mean this as high praise. For those of us who love the genre, Joshua is a true-blue horror film, superior to most others with ten times the budget.
In a nod to the opening sequence of Blue Velvet , Betz’s camera floats through an idyllic suburban neighborhood in the Indiana town of Brisbee. Old folks are out for a stroll together, kids are playing in the lawn. But the music takes a turn into a minor key, and the camera, now hand-held, stalks through a darkened woods, enters a house, and comes to rest on the floor of a bare room. A good-looking young man and his drunken pick-up are arriving home. Suddenly, the girl is on the floor in front of us, and we are witnessing an ice-cold murder.
Cut to the protagonist, Kelby, played by Ward Roberts. He escaped Brisbee years ago. He now learns that his father, a convicted pedophile, murderer of his infant sister, has died of a heart attack in prison. Kelby and his pretty fiancée, Amelia, Christy Jackson, must return to Brisbee to make the funeral arrangements.
These early scenes struggle to cohere. As Kelby confronts his remaining family, including two childhood friends who hold a dark secret – one of whom is the killer from the opening sequence — the super-16mm cinematography, and the music, by Jeff Grace, are quite good. The acting, and the dialog scenes, don’t feel natural – at least not yet. But why see a first film, if you’re unwilling to make allowances? And if you hang in there, soon enough you won’t have to.
Joshua ‘s black humor first surfaces at the funeral parlor. Kelby meets Uncle Bob, a traveling knife salesman who has brought his work along with him. Uncle Bob expresses his feelings for his brother by plunging one of his samples into the chest of the corpse. "See?" he says, "Told you they were sharp."
As we edge closer to the secret from the past, the more go-for-broke the acting becomes, the more gothic is the sensibility, and the better and better the film works. When we at last learn what the boys did – and it’s truly, deeply sick - Joshua ‘s rattling fragments come together with an almost audible "snap". The film has gone (as its characters say) to "the next level". The filmmakers, in their unrepentant way, have done Indiana proud.
Joshua is playing in Bloomington this weekend as part of the Ryder film series. On Friday, October 20th, the director and cast will be on hand for a Q&A. This and other theater and music reviews are available online at wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.