If you think prison is brutal, spare a thought for poor Vivian, a young offender sentenced to help out on an all-con production of Macbeth in middle-of-nowhere Michigan. Nightmare! But it gets worse from there: the has-been director of the project is haunted by a vague “dark past”, and is played by Cary Elwes. Double nightmare! You’d think Viv might see it as a blessing when she finds herself haunted by the Scottish Play’s famous curse, because at least it gives her something to do, but she isn’t particularly the grateful type. She’s the curious type, though, which is lucky because otherwise the film would have no plot; and she’s also the troubled type, which is lucky because otherwise the film would hold very little interest.
As it is, Vivian is the only character that we can really get interested in, with the whole rest of the cast coming across as stereotypes, when they have enough substance to even register, but Vivian is full of conflict and complexity in a way that’s really relatable and understated and believable in a way that these types of characters, in these types of films, so rarely demonstrate. Newcomer Shelby Young nails her performance, too, which is really nice. Second-billed after her is Cary Elwes, who lacks discrimination but not self-respect, and is thus continually the best thing in sub-par movies. It’s quite astonishing how little he’s given to work with here, especially in contrast with the enviable writing of the lead rôle, and quite fascinating how far he makes it go. He’s like a mother in wartime, feeding a family of six with a slice of bread and a single Wellington boot.
Similarly making the best of things is the direction, which is imaginative and slightly experimental on a small budget – excellent use is made of location filming, the whole thing having been done in and around Michigan’s Barn Theatre, which can be made to seem welcoming or foreboding, familiar or foreign, exotic or dull, depending on where we are in the script and what’s called for. Director Phil Wurtzel is clearly beyond competent in that capacity even if his writing is a little patchy, and he uses digital film really nicely, too.
All in all I liked the film, for most of its runtime, more than I respected it; it isn’t exactly good, but it isn’t boring either, and there’s always something endearing about these sincere and low-budget productions, as long as they aren’t pretentious. As a matter of fact, Haunting in Cawdor is so free of pretension that it never gets even close to making any commentary on Macbeth, or using Macbeth as a commentary on its own action. Vivian invokes the curse by watching an old production of the play on videotape, so really the whole thing has more in common with The Ring than Shakespeare. Funny, too – I’ve watched several filmed versions of Macbeth and never suffered any harm from it, but who knows? So one of the classics is used here as a mere vehicle for spooky stuff, so what? Shakespeare used bits of history and mythology and literature as vehicles for spooky stuff, and sexy stuff, and bawdy stuff, all the time, so perhaps in a meta way it’s super apt.
A Haunting in Cawdor opens in the UK today (9/10/15), will you be checking it out? Let us know in the box below!