There’s a good movie to be crafted out of Applecart’s mix of faux true crime and splatter picture lack of pretense, but unfortunately freshman director Brad Baruh hasn’t made it. A mischievous spirit runs through his Don Coscarelli-produced “cabin in the woods” creature feature, not to mention plenty of gooey gore SFX, but the whole thing just feels botched behind the camera, with scenes shot in flat, shoddy digital more fit for your average early aughts SyFy schlock. In short, it’s not a failure of vision, but rather one of basic execution, pervading even the most elementary areas of production.
Baruh’s picture certainly isn’t bad due to a lack of effort on his cast’s part, who are having a ball trying to replicate the funny/crazy/funny aura of its legendary producer’s better efforts (think: the gaudy, go for broke brilliance of John Dies At the End, right down to a Chase Williamson role). Using its character-driven premise – a family (headed by Brea Grant and AJ Bowen) head to a snowy retreat built upon a deposit of natural healing elements, in a last ditch effort to heal the goofy papa’s terminal liver cancer – the set up for isolated madness is effortlessly put into place. Bowen and Grant (who’s visually miscast as a mother who actually looks the same age as her daughter, played by Sophie Dalah) are having a ton of fun portraying a loving couple. Bowen really bites into becoming a “walking dad joke”, and his better half exudes a good-humored Final Girl radiance. There’s a lovingness here that’s contained in Baruh and Irving Walker’s script that’s difficult to deny, and the performers share a natural chemistry.
No, the real issues arise once the narrative gimmick of Baruh’s film is introduced – an intercut faux true crime show that documents the atrocities we’re currently witnessing (and are subsequently pinned on Grant’s character, earning her the name “Axe Mom”). There’s a real hokey quality to the host (Daniel Roebuck) and the way the entire production is presented. We’re obviously supposed to laugh at the recreations of “family photos” where Grant and Bowen are mugging for the camera, and the lead detective (Sky Soliel) is obviously clueless as to how these events actually went down, but while Baruh might think he’s bolstering the mystery, his inability to maintain tone or convey a general sense of intent is baffling. Is this all a tongue-in-cheek horror/comedy? Or am I supposed to be watching these after dinner pieces of replicated docupulp straight during their darker moments, such as when they turn to jailhouse interviews with the now destroyed mama?
Thank God for Barbara Crampton, who spins off into her own universe as Applecart’s big bad, Senator Leslie Bison. Bison passes herself off as a victim stranded in the snow, before offering up the grieving tribe as tribute to a slimy cabal of something-or-others in the woods, who are all worshipping a giant, phallic cone pulled straight from some lost Roger Corman Alien knock-off. Why she’s making such a sacrifice shouldn’t be spoiled, but the real treat is watching Crampton play her part like a twisted Republican version of the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz, implanting goopy, Cronenbergian pods into the back of her victims’ necks and watching them transform in the Crystal Pepsi variation of Deadites. The actress has always been one of the most reliable presences genre cinema’s ever seen, and she does not disappoint here.
To be fair, the creature work is pretty fun, if wholly familiar, and the final thirty minutes of Applecart are a straight up bloodbath, placing Grant front and center as a blade-wielding mother on a mission to dismember all evil that steps in her path. However, by that point the tone is so far gone that the laughs come (intentional and otherwise) more frequently than even the cheapest of thrills. That’s a real shame, as the elements of a great horror movie – a stellar cast, spooky premise, weird ass monsters, buckets of blood – are all present and accounted for except for one: a director who can bring all these pieces together to craft a tonally coherent spook show.