Following the deaths of her mother and sister a young woman burdened by guilt begins to be plagued by the darkness that was hidden in her family’s past. Here is our review of Don Swanson’s psychological horror Occurrence at Mills Creek.
Here at Screen Critix, I reviewed the opening act of Swanson’s Mills Creek in the form of a 20-minute short last year. After watching the finally completed feature-length version I looked back on my previous review to see what my thoughts were then and if the full story has now changed any of my initial feelings. The first thing to note is that I spent a lot of time comparing Mills Creek to David Lynch films and that still remains the case today. The influence of Lynch on Mills Creek is undeniable and that becomes more obvious in feature-length form.
Almost every scene is reminiscent of Twin Peaks, whether that be in the way Swanson frames his shots or the way he lights each scene. Some of the cinematography (which is also done by Swanson) is beautifully haunting, particularly the exterior shots of Clara alone in open spaces such as graveyards, the college campus, and in one moment reminiscent of Fargo, snow-covered landscapes. One major drawback, however, is that some of the scenes are lit so darkly that you have to work extremely hard to see what is going on. Even the form that each acting performance takes can be traced right back to Lynch, unfortunately, in feature-length form, some of the performances are less stellar than others.
For example, Joe Fishel’s Victor comes across more stiff and stilted than it did previously, which is a shame, similarly, Ava Psoras as Clara, her controlled manner and strong line delivery which was a high point in the previous version now suffers a little more and becomes somewhat grating in longer takes. However, her emotional work in the quieter moments, particularly when speaking to her family and in close-ups, is still very strong.
When we look at the overall style of the film it is possible that these acting styles could have been a directorial choice by Swanson because each performance is quite different from the other. This is also something you can level at many performances seen in David Lynch movies, many of which also come across as larger than life and somewhat unnatural. Alexa Mechling as Cassandra has some nice moments and a suitably ethereal quality that comes through, while Mary Sack’s spiky Aunt Cecelia is a different character again; she brings with her an energy and sarcasm that helps liven up some of the film’s slower moments.
In the shorter version of Mills Creek, I noted that when you have just 20 minutes to get your point across you tend to cram all of your ideas in at once and there simply isn’t enough time to get to know all of the key protagonists. Swanson has no problems this time around and the extra hour he uses to tell his labyrinth mystery gives the audience plenty of opportunities to meet each character, form a judgement about them, and then drink in their surroundings. We get to learn a lot more about Clara’s personal life, we see her at school, discover she is gay, in therapy, and as another funeral takes place, see the relationship she has with her distant family. The aforementioned Aunt Cecelia brightens up both her and our demeanour, which also helps to round out more of Clara’s character.
It’s the final third when most of the drama and horror occurs. The practical special effects are schlocky but work in tandem with each revelation and, as the conclusion draws near, the tension increases with help from the haunting music and vocals from Mia Zanotti.
I enjoyed what I saw with the Occurrence At Mills Creek but this final cut version left me a little cold. Director Don Swanson certainly knows how to put effective images on the screen and how to use a soundtrack to create mood, but at the end of the film, the audience, much like when Clara is left all alone, detached and somewhat disconnected from the final outcome. Still, the potential from Swanson and all his cast and crew is clear to see and we eagerly look forward to their next production.