Once upon a time in the good old days of 1270 BCE, priests sacrificed Canaanite babies to the god Moloch in the lake of fire to ensure good crops. However, not all of the children perished in the fire and the ones who survived drank from Moloch’s chalice and were kept alive to continue the demon-god’s wishes...
...Fast forward to present day, the baby-killing grounds of Moloch are now the Sazarac River Valley of Oregon. Peaceful music and the anodyne atmosphere mixed with aerial shots of Twin Peaks-esque scenery creates a sharp turn from the blood offerings of the past. However, do not let the placid landscape deceive you because Red-Handed hides quite a bit of evil among the trees.
What probably brings most viewers to Frank Peluso’s film is the addition of Michael Madsen (Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill Vol.2) and Michael Biehn (Tombstone, Cherry Falls) who play estranged brothers. Neither of the Michael’s play a significantly large role in the film as the main focus of the story revolves around Madsen’s three sons. The first scene of the movie shows Lou (Madsen) speaking with his son Duffy, played by Madsen’s real-life son Christian Madsen (Divergent). The father and son relationship comes off as strained and both men also admit they barely speak with their respected brothers, so the film seems appropriately timed to premiere during the holiday season. The grown-men strain to connect, but there is a bit of a Cats-in-the-Cradle moment with the grandson, Louie, to show the family does actually care for each other.
No spoilers here, but Lou does not last very long once the movie gets started and his death prompts his three sons to reunite to spread their deceased parent’s ashes. The siblings and their significant others do not even make an attempt to play nice and we have the pleasure of witnessing a pretty tense car ride out to the Sazarac river. Their interactions remain far from friendly as everyone fights verbally and tries their hardest to upset one another.
Through dialogue we learn about the brothers and how they met their girls and pieces start to fall into place why the brothers do not have a strong bond. For one, the brother Pete, played by Owen Burke (Castle Rock Season 2, The Town) was committed as a small child and the reason for his removal from the home still remains a mystery to his brothers. However, while Pete apparently repressed his childhood, through flashbacks we learn his past holds a far more sinister secret. Another reason the oldest brother distanced himself from the family becomes apparent when Pete admits he is not neurotypical and suffers from a processing disorder which prevents him from living in the city and limits him to living in the woods. And while some of the other back-woods characters come off as creepy and unrefined, Pete presents a lot of knowledge and childlike innocence. However, Duffy and Gus (Ryan Carnes, Desperate Housewives) remain wary of their brother after Pete unleashes in-depth information about the occult and casually discusses the chalice of life after they randomly discover a symbol carved into a tree. The intensity and delivery from Burke help set the tone for the current situation and also fills in the audience on the past of the family and the property.
While the male characters get more of the story and drama, the female characters serve as seductresses as they take turns manipulating the brothers. None of the women particularly stand out, partially because none of them were really developed and all of them are thin white women with blond hair, so there were some intentional casting choices to make all the women fairly interchangeable with one another. However, Caroline Vreeland plays Rachel who brings the audience a little bit more depth than her ‘sisters.’ When arriving at the river, the viewer knows more about Rachel than the brothers, so while watching you will experience a certain level of frustration as Duffy stupidly trusts his new friend. Another interesting contribution to the film includes the original songs written by Charles Derenne. The creepy lyrics of “Without You” paired with Vreeland’s haunting voice brings a stronger level of evilness to the character.
Some fairly implausible plot points occur when the young Louie goes missing and instead of bringing the authorities into the situation, the director uses the initial search efforts as opportunities for exposition. Through a brotherly exchange of emotions and a chance encounter with a local, Duffy starts understanding how deep and long this mystery spreads.
The film worked with a low budget and I assume most of the costs went towards exterior shots. Numerous forest scenes as well as sprawling aerial shots of the trees and river really let us see how secluded the characters find themselves when staying at their family’s home. The expansive scenery also adds to the growing terror felt by Duffy when he realizes the amount of ground he must search to find his 6-year-old son.
Red-Handed does not present in a normal horror fashion and will align more with the slow burn atmospheric films such as Rosemary’s Baby or The VVitch. The lack of jump scares will keep some viewers from staying engaged, but plenty of horror fans will enjoy the mystery surrounding the cult and the family as we try to guess who will eventually betray who. Some of the pacing seems off as the character development of Pete and the constant clues from the past take precedence over the focus on the present-day storyline and then the last 15 minutes tries to tell a whole lot of story in a very small time. However, you cannot hate on a movie just because the ending was a bit disappointing. The combination of family drama with a mysterious demon-god worshipping cult presents an interesting concept, but sometimes the story struggles to successfully synch the two ideas. Perhaps more character development and less scenery shots would have helped solidify the film into the well-crafted story it deserves to be.
Red Handed is now available on VOD from High Octane Pictures.
By Amylou Ahava
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