A Savannah Haunting was an odd but compelling watch at the online edition of the 2021 Dracula Film Festival in Romania. Directed by William Mark McCullough, who is a prolific actor as well as a horror filmmaker, and produced by Alexis Nelson, an Emmy-nominated and well-known VFX wizard, this is a film that catches your eye with crisp photography and bright colors, and is given a boost of authenticity from the fact that it is shot in a Savannah house with an actual history of hauntings – some of the actors appearing here, even McCullough himself, seem to have been previous owners of the house, and they share their experiences in the 5-minute credits sequence. The downside is that this movie sometimes comes off as a Lifetime thriller (that can be both a good and a bad thing), and, while it is thematically and conceptually satisfying, it unfortunately doesn’t manage to stick the landing.
A Savannah Haunting blends the Southern Gothic genre with the haunting film, most specifically the haunted house (it is a much gentler and personal affair than most of the in-your-face studio efforts in that area – there are no jump-scares, for starters), and has some elements of teensploitation that actually enrich the viewing experience for about an hour or so, but which are ultimately abandoned for the sake of twists. The story is centered around a family of four who leave behind their old existence in the wake of a deceased daughter and move to Savannah – which, as it turns out, has a rich history of the occult and the spiritual rivalling that of New Orleans.
The most relevant themes are coping with grief, overcoming temptation, burgeoning sexuality and the loneliness and insulation of childhood – in fact, the four characters, mother, father, daughter and son, each illustrate one of these themes so thoroughly that you could say that this is four movies as one, but they aren’t very fleshed out beyond that, except for – maybe – the mother, Rachel. A recurring theme is also that of slavery and the exploitation of Black people, and the twisted legacy of centuries of hate – just don’t expect anything resembling the complex and haunting ‘The Underground Railroad’, or even this year’s Blumhouse movie ‘Black as Night’.
The plot, after introducing several local characters and mentioning the past Savannah racial tensions, as well as its voodoo practices, follows each of the four characters as they navigate their new life – the mother visits a psychiatrist and is visited in turn by the ghost of her dead daughter – or is she? The teenage daughter meets a slightly older female character whom she starts a fiery, passionate affair with. The father is mostly absent, working in restoring old houses, igniting a friendship with a Black family and being himself tempted by Lilath. Finally, the son is just a young boy, albeit a bit of a Cassandra figure, and he plays with ghosts, which lull him into dangerous situations. There is also a creepy doll, perhaps the strongest recurring image in the whole movie, and also a scene featuring nudity, which felt out of place and unnecessary.
A lot of modern horror films sacrifice character development in favor of depicting constant dread, and this movie goes for that approach, but while it’s a brave attempt, its constantly shifting tones don’t help in forming a cohesive whole – not that this steals anything from the movie’s charm, however – at 1 hour and 43 minutes, this is still a rewarding watch. The real problem is this: if you read the plot summary above and you thought ‘hey, this is a Lifetime thriller, right?’, then you might be onto something: the plot, and more specifically the way that the movie is shot and edited – completely at odds with the darkness befitting a ghost movie – and some of the dialogue point to a Lifetime thriller, albeit a more serious one than the craziest offerings the network is known for.
What are we talking about when we say ‘Lifetime’ and ‘crazy’? Perhaps the 2015 ‘Caught’, starring an Anna Camp who goes full Nic Cage, or the hilariously titled ‘Stalked By My Mother’, with one of the very best villains in a Lifetime thriller; in fact, titles like ‘Psycho Doctor’, ‘Stalked By My Neighbor’, ‘Stalked at 17’ and the sometimes oblivious tone found in those films are exactly what lent them to be parodied in the stealthy 2015 Will Ferrell-starring ‘A Deadly Adoption’, and more recently – whether the filmmakers intended this or not, some critics and fans noted the similarities – in the A24 Ilana Glazer-starring horror ‘False Positive’… so the veil between Lifetime thriller and serious horror is a lot more thin right now than it used to be. This can be a good thing, too, because there is a lot of territory that could still cross over into high-brow horror fare and end up enriching it (just like a writer like David Foster Wallace blended high-brow and low-brow humor).
A Savannah Haunting manages to break out of that Lifetime feel with a last act that fully commits to the horror genre, with the evil entity being revealed as something rather unexpected and powerful, and a ‘ghosts ballroom’ scene that apparently all post-Shining ghost movies have to attempt… but, sadly, this last act doesn’t work at all when compared to the very promising setup – it takes you out of the previously-established atmosphere, it abandons the most interesting plotline, and the ending can feel extremely rushed and unsatisfying – if you found the ending of ‘Shutter Island’ to be far-fetched, you can safely add this one to the list of ill-conceived denouements.
But, when taken as a whole, A Savannah Haunting certainly was an interesting experience, with both ups and downs, one that will have no trouble finding its fans once it hits VOD platforms. For an hour and ten minutes, it holds your attention by blending four different genres, and it offers some stunning photography and colors, a rich setting, and some outlandish characters – Lilath and a creepy, racist neighbor who just wants to lend a hand! That it doesn’t manage to have a compelling ending befitting all the pieces it sets on the board is a pity, but as a film built around a real haunted house, it more than does its job.
We watched A Savannah Haunting as part of our Dracula Film Festival coverage.