On paper, co-writer/director Brad Baruh’s debut sounds like the perfect recipe for a fun midnight feature. A cold open set in 1961 shows a couple making out in the woods, before their night of romance turns horrific thanks to lurking cloaked figures. Cut to present day, where the Pollack family is heading out to an icy cabin in the woods for an idyllic getaway. When the find an unconscious woman in the snow, a deadly, tragic chain of events unfolds. That this cast is comprised of genre vets Brea Grant, A.J. Bowen, and Barbara Crampton, with Don Coscarelli serving as executive producer, this make the film a safe bet for great horror, right?
Not so much. The cast itself is the saving grace of the film. Crampton’s villainous turn is so great that I hope filmmakers take notice- she needs more roles like this. We need her in more roles like this. As Leslie Bison, she’s ruthless and ambitious, and it’s clear she’s having a blast with this part. Bowen and Grant as James and Casey Pollack, as well as Joshua Hoffman and Sophie Dalah as the Pollack children, believably convey a close-knit family with deep, effortless bonds. The introduction of the Pollack family, and the subsequent tense dinner scene that becomes the beginning of their nightmare, indicates a much more experienced filmmaker than the rest of the film.
Once the introductions are out of the way and the action kicks in, though, the narrative seems to spiral out of Baruh’s control. Throughout the film, there’s a framing device that utilizes a true crime documentary television series that reveals a different perspective of the Pollack family events that night, one without the supernatural elements. It offers a few chuckles, but it also robs the film of most of its suspense. The show reveals the fate of most of these characters early on, so then it becomes a waiting game to learn the why.
When the why is revealed, it feels half baked. Bison’s motivations and goals are clear, but just what she needs the Pollack family for isn’t so clear. It’s distilled down to the most vague of explanations that it feels incomplete. There are fantastic practical effects, humans turned demonic, and a weird phallic object in the woods that emits strange, oozing tentacle-like mass for the cloaked figures to use in the weirdest of ways. All of this sounds great, except it’s never fully explained or explored. It doesn’t help that the tone of the film is just as confused- sometimes it wants to be cheeky and humorous, but other moments the film wants you to take it very seriously. When the plot isn’t as developed as it should be, it all feels confused.
There’s an excellent concept here, and some really great moments bolstered by a talented cast that makes you want to care. Which is why this winds up a big disappointment. With a more polished script, and more fully developed narrative, this could have easily achieved that midnight madness feel. It’s a rocky debut for Baruh, but one that shows great potential. Applecart is worth a visit for Cramption’s glorious villainous turn and some fun practical creature and gore effects. Just don’t expect a fully fleshed out story or any real explanation to what happens.
Applecart made its world premiere at Fantastic Fest on September 22, 2017.