A long, mild road to a murky payoff, “A Haunting in Cawdor” stirs some supernatural suspense around an ad hoc company of young offenders mounting that bad-luck token among stage classics, “Macbeth.” Phil Wurtzel’s Michigan-shot feature wants us to keep guessing whether the vaguely spooky goings-on are all in the troubled heroine’s head, due to the “cursed” play, ghosts or something else — but it’s increasingly hard to care, and the resolution pretty much chooses “all of the above.” This uninspired if competently made low-budget indie is likely to underwhelm horror fans as it opens on single screens in 10 cities this Friday, and in subsequent home-format release.
Laying on the portent with a trowel the second Vivian (Shelby Young, “Nightlight”) gets off the bus in the titular burg, the pic immediately pegs her as a disturbed girl beset by unreliable visions and noises. It’s odd, then, that she’s been released (we eventually discover) from a series of psych wards to serve 90 final days in the company of a dozen or so other probationary youths reaching the end of conventional petty-criminal-offense sentences. Good behavior has gotten them farmed out to the Cawdor Barn Theater (actually a historic summer-stock venue in Augusta, Mich., near Battle Creek), where they’ll finish their terms acting Shakespeare for good cop/artistic director Lawrence (Cary Elwes), a onetime Broadway talent, when not doing calisthenics and chores for bad cop/camp supervisor Chuck (Charlie King), a no-nonsense ex-con.
Naturally cast as Lady Macbeth, the unstable Vivian experiences lots of boo-scare phenomena no one else seems to notice, along with visits from a friendly local guy (“Twilight’s” Michael Welch) whom no one else interacts with, either. It’s rumored that a prior production here of the Scottish play somehow led to tragedy, while a psychiatrist (Patrick Floch) drops in from Ann Arbor to warn Lawrence that Vivian, a trauma survivor, is probably not ideally suited to act out a theatrical bloodbath as behavioral therapy.
Though never outright dull, “A Haunting in Cawdor” manages to provide few incidents of genuine interest while leaving potentially rewarding character and thematic elements unexplored. There’s little exploitation of ye olde life-reflecting-art tack typical of backstage thrillers; apart from amiable Tina (Bethany Edlund) and obnoxious Brian (Philip David Black), the other inmates are scarcely differentiated. It’s not until the film’s last half-hour that some things actually happen — including the inevitable near-death by mysteriously falling lighting rig — and even then, they’re not very surprising or suspenseful. Those who measure horror value by gore or death count will be sorely aggrieved (they’d be better off with any actual “Macbeth”). More dismayingly, Wurtzel simply doesn’t eke much atmosphere or narrative purpose out of a script that never stops feeling generic and undercooked.
The performers are adequate but not given a lot to work with; Elwes and King fare best with the sketchy material. Tech/design elements are pro if unimaginative.