The press releases for this Florida-set small town ghost story/film noir trumpet ‘from the writer of Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas’, which is admittedly a more tempting prospect than ‘from the director of Arachnoquake and Ragin Cajun Redneck Gators’ … but also slightly mis-sells the late novelist Michael McDowell, one of the most interesting and underrated writers who came to prominence in the 1980s horror publishing boom. I remember being more interested in Beetle Juice because McDowell had a script credit on it than because it was directed by that guy who made the Pee-Wee Herman film – and there was a screwball side to McDowell’s bibliography (the witty Thin Man-esque Jack and Susan books), though he was best known for complex, atmospheric, gruesome horror novels like The Amulet, The Elementals and the Black Water series.
This is an adaptation of his 1980 novel Cold Moon Over Babylon – McDowell, who died in 1999, has a script credit, so presumably he left a draft adaptation which has been passed down and rewritten by Jack Snyder (Fatal Exam, Atomic Shark) and director Griff Furst (Swamp Shark, Ghost Shark). I remember being struck by McDowell’s statement in an interview about his realisation that his favourite character in the novel had to die – and the conflicting emotions he felt about writing the death. In the film version, that character suffers but lives – which broadly shows how some of the more distinctive elements of the book have been tidied away in the adaptation, which also boils a tangle of Peyton Place sub-plots down to something that resembles an old EC horror comic eight-page story in which a rotten baddie commits a bunch of murders for personal gain and is punished by the animated corpses of his victims. Most of McDowell’s plot is still here, but his characters are diminished and the complex relationships among the two multi-generational families (yes – one rich set of bankers and one poor crowd of farmers) at the centre of the plot is rushed through. The guilt-ridden teenager co-opted in a body disposal venture by his evil father is especially scrimped and older generation guest stars Candy Clark and Christopher Lloyd have so little to do that they overcompensate by acting on all cylinders whenever they are on screen.
The setting is Babylon, Florida, in 1989 – making this another in the run of retro 80s horrors, presumably because (as with Cold in July) the filmmakers didn’t want to clutter things up with mobile phones and the internet. Teenage Margaret Larkin (Sara Catherine Bellamy) is murdered by a rainslicker-masked man during a downpour and tossed in the river, weighed down with her bicycle. She is posthumously bitten by snakes and manifests as a wet, snake-tongued, spectral avenger. McDowell was one of the first Western writers to admit being influenced by Asian horror films, so it’s only fair that his monsters here are the sorts of spooks made familiar by Chinese and Japanese ghost stories. Sheriff Hale (Frank Whaley) investigates pretty uselessly, but the girl’s grandma (Clark) insists the killer is banker Nathan Redfield (Josh Stewart), who has not only knocked up the teenager but is also scheming to repossess the family’s blueberry farm so he can turn a big profit on an oil deal. Though Redfield frames a black teacher (Marcus Lyle Brown) for the murder – and the killings of the old lady and her grandson (Chester Rushing) – there are no other suspects, which makes the I Know What You Did Last Summer masked slasher look redundant. Nathan is scorned by his wheelchairbound father (Lloyd), who is mostly interested in leching over the sheriff’s bikini-sporting teen daughter (Rachele Brooke Smith), and drags his own weak-willed son (Robbie Kay) into complicity. The end credits stress that the novel was published in 1980, which might well be an attempt to defuse suggestions that Cold Moon is a Twin Peaks knock-off … though the mix of mystery, horror and small town soap throws up a lot of similarities, including the abused teenager with a secret life found dead in a river, and the way the investigation of the murder uncovers corrupt business practices, horrible sexual abuse and supernatural evil.
The cops don’t really buy the broken-bloody-sword-in-the-trunk-of-the-black-guy’s-car gambit, but still fail to focus on the increasingly unstable Nathan – who is bothered by the apparitions of his victims. The film seems to want to be ambiguous about whether they’re all in the killer’s mind – he keeps lashing out at them only to find he’s assaulting someone who happens to be in the way – but we get several sequences not from Nathan’s POV where they clearly (and impressively) manifest. Stewart is an impressively creepy all-round villain – a crooked banker who aggressively preys on underage girls – whose misdeeds are as resonant in the era of Roy Moore and #metoo as they are redolent of the ‘80s. The ghosts are startling, especially with the CGI snaketongue, but since they only target someone we really hate they don’t really count as scary. It’s also a bit vague about why snakes figure so prominently in curses in these here parts – despite a tiny cameo for Tommy Wiseau of The Room/Disaster Artist fame as a snake-handling revivalist. For Furst, this was a step up from his run of SyFy animals-attack quickies – though, subsequently, he has been back in that patch with Trailer Park Shark.