You might know that Cassadaga is the psychic capital of the world, where a spiritualist camp is located on the outskirts of the town; it is one of the largest sites for the gathering of psychics. Or you might know it as an album by Bright Eyes; both are acceptable pieces of trivia. The film Cassadaga from director Anthony DiBlasi is also set in the titular town, and it makes more use of the psychic connotations of the town than folk rock.
The move stars Kelen Coleman as Lily, a teacher and talented artist who experiences an Edgar Allan Poe-like number of losses early in her life. At the age of fourteen, a bad bout of meningitis left her deaf; later, her mother died; and finally, at the beginning of the film, we see her sister killed in a car accident outside of Lily's school. It's a tragedy that Lily has difficulty overcoming, since she put most of her efforts into funding a trip to Paris for her sister. She decides to move to Cassadaga to pursue an art study, but her environment also brings her into contact with a psychic, a terribly angry ghost, and a serial killer who strings his victims up like puppets.
Cassadaga makes use of its deaf protagonist only slightly, meaning that it doesn't end up as overdrawn as Mischief Night, a horror film that I just reviewed that attempts to use blindness as a new take on the slasher film. There's a number of instances where Lily is surprised because she can't hear things behind her, but for the most part, Cassadaga is surprisingly adept at navigating around making this handicap a weakness. With that said, the film also ignores it to a large degree except during conversations that Lily can't hear; since the movie puts this idea into motion, it seems strange that it didn't use lack of hearing as a device to scare the viewer.
But as a character device it works rather well. It's easy to like Lily - she's pretty, personable, but not overly interesting. The film spends quite a lot of time developing a relationship between Lily and one of her students' father, Mike (Kevin Alejandro), so much so that sometimes the scares and ghost encounters become too spaced out. Cassadaga manages to craft likable characters, but often it seems unlikely that any of them will ever encounter any harm.
That brings us to the main problem with the film: the serial killer aspect of Cassadaga, the man known as "Gepetto" that kidnaps young women and turns them into marionettes that can be controlled by a series of strings. The film cuts back and forth between Lily's predicaments and Gepetto slicing and dicing some girl he found running in the park. The killer's actions are disturbing, yes - he arms and legs, turns them into jointed pieces he can manipulate, and ten reattaches them - but ultimately the reason for this gruesome display is never revealed.
The scenes with Gepetto are haphazardly put together, too, where it feels like DiBlasi thought that he needed to switch the narrative up or risk losing the viewer. In a way, that's true, but Gepetto the serial killer is considerably less intriguing than he should be. Cassadaga realizes it needs motivation for what the killer does, but the most it gives us is a flashback scene where, as a kid, the serial killer wanted to dress as a woman only to be chastised by his overbearing mother. That's not enough to explain where the puppets come from, and so the tortuous sequences tend more towards the exploitative.
Yet Cassadaga is a film that never loses its focus. It's plodding and mysterious, keeping the viewer watching if only to find out how all the pieces fit. It's got good character development for the most part, and except for a predictable, ridiculous ending, Cassadaga is a movie that utilizes its set pieces effectively. It just struggles to control its puppet master, leading to a frustratingly obvious reveal.
Thanks to Archstone Distribution for review screener.
Cassadaga on Rotten Tomatoes