[Salem Horror Fest Review] Josh Atkinson’s 'Displaced' Finds a Middle Ground Between the Fun and Grim of the Satanic Panic
I’ve always been obsessed with the weirder side of life...
...It’s that obsession that has fueled my love for the horror genre and driven me towards researching topics that might be off-putting for the average person. It’s why I have an inexplicable interest in instances of moral panic like the Satanic Panic. The Satanic Panic, if you don’t know, is a period starting in the 1970s, but really taking hold in the ‘80s and ‘90s, during which many Americans became convinced of a conspiracy about a vast cabal of Satanists that’d worked its way into the upper echelons of national and world governments. Born out of that conspiracy, the Satanic Panic film has become a subgenre of its own, where characters, often unwittingly, find themselves pitted against an evil cult bent on helping Satan establish his rule over the earth.
While the movies never agree on whether Satan and his minions will be victorious, we’ve yet to see what happens to the participants, both willing and unwilling, if the summoning fails and they’re forced to return to the world. But rejoice, dear friend, for the Dark One has offered us an answer in the form of Displaced, written and directed by Josh Atkinson, which is celebrating its world premiere at Salem Horror Fest 2020.
Displaced centers around Nathan Lewis, played by Philip Jayoni, a young black man who lives in a Brooklyn brownstone with his grandmother (Hope Harley) and the tenants she rents to. As a child, Nathan’s mother was involved in a Satanic cult. Except for Nathan and a few other children who were rescued, the entire cult died when the compound went up in flames. Since then, Nathan has been trying to come to terms with the trauma he suffered at the hands of the cult. Because of his past, he has a passion for protecting children as member of Child Protective Services. Understandably, his experiences have left him scarred, and he has trouble socializing and connecting with most adults in the outside world.
Things become even more difficult for Nathan when one of his neighbors mysteriously vacates her unit and an overbearingly nice white couple, Lucas (Josh Atkinson) and Heather (Megan Fitzgerald), quickly take her place. Nathan can’t shake the feeling that there’s something strange about the couple, but his grandmother and neighbor Jasmine (Shaquanna Williams) assure him that he’s overreacting. Soon after the couple moves in, Nathan’s psychological state deteriorates; he sees and hears things that can’t be real, and he has a hard time distinguishing between his delusions and reality. Nathan becomes convinced that Lucas and Heather are part of a cult and tries to warn those he loves with no success. As Nathan finds himself spiraling further and further, he slowly unravels the mystery of who he and the rest of the brownstone residents really are.
Displaced is a movie that finds itself in the middle of several things. The film focuses on Nathan’s transition from anxious, solitary young man into his true self. Its story displays Brooklyn’s transition from a diverse neighborhood to a more gentrified and middle-class white area. But it also takes the middle ground within the Satanic Panic genre, which tends to be either extremely psychological in nature or gory and goofy. Atkinson’s take on the genre places it squarely between these two points, combining the psychological horror and questionable mental state of Rosemary’s Baby and the fun of more modern variations on the genre like Satanic Panic, without ever inching too far into either. While there’s not much that made me jump out of my seat, Displaced has moments of tension and anxiety that you can’t take your eyes off of interspersed with scenes and dialogue that seem so out of place they’re guaranteed to make you laugh.
It’s clear that one of the major themes of Displaced is gentrification; I say this because it’s brought up more than once throughout the movie. It’s obvious what a white couple moving into a brownstone that has traditionally been occupied by people of color signifies. And let’s face it, the film is named Displaced. It’s an important theme that deserves attention in more movies, especially horror, since gentrification can be both physically and symbolically violent. Atkinson brings the viewer face to face with this problem, even if the film does hit you over the head with it a time or two.
Philip Jayoni does a wonderful job portraying Nathan as a traumatized character whose unresolved past has kept him from fostering relationships with other people. Everything from his speech patterns to his facial expressions exude the anxiety and paranoia of the character. Josh Atkinson and Megan Fitzgerald also shine as the culty, Midwestern couple who’ve moved next door. Their bubbly and charismatic characters balance out the grimness pressed on the movie by Jayoni’s character and help it find the perfect middle ground it sits at.
At its core, Displaced is a movie about clashes: the clash of two cultures, the clash inherent in the Satanic Panic genre, and the clash of a man with his past. It is fun and grim, dark and humorous, and the portrayal of its fictionalized Brooklyn is laden with messages for our real world.
By Tim Beirne
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