Meet the Nance’s – your average young American family, looking to move to a peaceful, affordable town, where they can make a living and raise their little boy Michael. Budding life – a new marriage, a new home, a new child. In The Empty Acre, all of this will be decimated to dust. Where there should be happiness and elation, there is depression and aggravation. Where there should be cattle and fresh budding crops are corpses and a plot of earth so dead, not a blade of grass can survive on it. Something is out there on the Nance’s farm – a nothingness so dark and needy that it is feeding off every bit of life around it.
This Kansas set feature film debut for Patrick Rea is an accomplishment in original storytelling, and a dark yet basic bedtime type story that will keep you feeding off the depression ripping this family apart. In novel like fashion, The Empty Acre takes just enough time to identify its characters and turn a domestic family drama into something much more sinister. At the point where you find yourself faintly concerned for this couple – things suddenly take a turn for the worse. Soon everything is unraveling to the point where you are immersed in death, negativity, and a mere fight for survival. What The Empty Acre does is take this familiar gradual progression of lukewarm offensiveness to the point of no return, until you find yourself an hour into a film littered with corpses and the sucking death of a ghost town dying before your eyes.
Things begin promising for Beth Nance (Jennifer Plas) and her new husband Jacob (John Wilson). A newborn son and the open future of a new home and life. But almost as soon as they move into their new home, in all begins to unravel. Strange sounds come from the field at night. A gap is growing between Beth and her husband – a negative vibe generating arguments and depression. Paranoia and separation ensue, until finally one night, the baby is gone from its crib while the two are fighting downstairs.
While the town focuses on the two and their problems as invasive as a small town would – picking apart their personal lives and problems to the point where everyone is gossiping over whether or not the mentally unstable Beth may have done this to her own child – a much bigger problem is growing. Beneath that dead plot of land is an entity that escapes into the darkness of night like a black mist – a formless, embodiment of nothingness – taking lives night after night around the plot and its borders. Dogs, cattle, and other people turn up missing day after day. And as Chief Jefferson (Ari Bavel) looks into this rash of “mystery kidnappings” – more is uncovered. Ghost towns – scores of missing people. All unexplained.
The horror that this film offers is not in the form of blood and guts – but more so in domestic tension, self-confusion, negativity, and unexplained deaths. Where it has a chance to turn into a run-of-the-mill “I’m gonna get my baby back” story, it immediately retreats and throws in more death and mystery, to the point where, almost realistically, the problems become so out of hand that finding the baby becomes put on the back burner to just getting out of this situation alive. A nearby neighbor played by Robert Paisley holds the answers to just what’s been going on – but by the time Beth finds out the answers to what happened to her child – her own life is on the line.
This picture is beautifully shot for a low budget film – picturesque, and cinematographically sound, especially for what one might expect from an indie feature out of Kansas, directed by a newcomer. The magenta sunsets and colorful farmlands glow between chapters – segways of Midwestern beauty that contrast the life and death quite effectively. Their vibrancy add to the easy distinction here between what is flourishing and what is dying. The scenes of tension and confusion are effective and dizzying. Jennifer Plas is a subtle gift to this movie, and convincing – her acting carries this film. Is she had faltered, which she didn’t, a couple of otherwise unnoticeable, amatueristic flaws would have been brought to the surface.
Many people who travel the festival circuit may recognize the name of Patrick Rea. Where most film school graduates generate shorts to attract interest to their talent like giving out free samples, Patrick Rea took his time in the minor leagues to master the horror short. Cranking out shorts for the past couple of years nearly every couple of month that have also been released as a compilational DVD, Rea sharpened his instruments and worked out a lot of amateur kinks prior to attempting a feature film. The result is well above the bar for first timers. This is simplicity – whats best about the Midwest, a professional ocopello, or an old, single malt scotch. There is room for improvement here – but those who can take the time to slow down and enjoy a good independent, 1950′s type sci-fi horror film from today that is not “trying” to be such, will enjoy what The Empty Acre has to offer.
Final analysis: Take an old fashioned ride on the American family into the depths of depression, despair and death. Not over concerned with the task of wowing people with eye-gags, insanely retarded plot twists or over-the-top gore. It will deceive viewers with plainness and then before you know it, as cyanide is sickly sweet, there’s nothing left to do but die. Horror fans deeply submersed in violence, gore and shock may feel sold a bit short. Calmly told and subtlely effective, this X-Files/Twilight Zone-ish tale of Midwestern horror should identify with the average viewer and keep one effortlessly immersed in its subtleties. Better viewed in a calm, dark environment than in the bustle of a sunny, lively day, The Empty Acre is a solid unique tale without fireworks that should satisfy that mental hunger for what we so often find ourselves without – a simple, original and effective horror movie.