I’ve written derisively in this space before about the curious subgenre that is the Netflix Original Programmer, the distinctly indistinct, non-auteur-driven titles churned out monthly to pad out your watch-while-scrolling watchlist. These films are, by all accounts, often extraordinarily expensive, but you likely wouldn’t know it; with their curiously flat lighting and out-of-the-box CGI, these films generally look abysmally cheap. It is illuminating, then, to compare these titles with the original productions of boutique horror streamer Shudder. The average budget of a Shudder original actually is as low as those of Netflix appear to be, but they make up for it by hiring actual filmmakers to tell weird– and often surprisingly personal– stories. Brooklyn 45, the new film from director Ted Geohegan (We Are Still Here), consists entirely of five or six actors in a single room, and is longer on dialogue than ghosts (though, to be sure, the scares are suitably gnarly). But it is a truly thoughtful and original piece of work, and will stay with you far longer than, say, Red Notice 2.
It’s the first Christmas following the end of World War II, and a group of Army buddies gather at the New York City brownstone of Colonel Clive “Hock” Hockstatter (the great Larry Fessenden). The veterans have the easy rapport of those who have been through hell together: straightlaced Major Paul DiFranco (Ezra Buzzington), raffish marksman Archie Stanton (Jeremy Holm), and ace interrogator Marla Sheridan (Anne Ramsay), plus Marla’s Pentagon paper-pusher husband Bob (Ron E. Rains). Their reunion, however, is bittersweet; Hock’s wife, a veteran herself, committed suicide on Thanksgiving, driven by paranoid notions regarding their German grocer neighbor (Kristina Klebe). Despondent over his wife’s death, Hock insists that his friends indulge him in a seance to try to contact her in the spirit realm. Needless to say, the seance goes awry (has any seance in the history of movies ever gone well?), and soon the gathering devolves into a nightmare of suspicions, buried secrets, and otherworldly visitors.
Like Sanctuary, which I reviewed last week, Brooklyn 45 could easily be adapted for the stage, and in the early going this comparison is not necessarily complimentary; the first act falls into the classic low-budget trap of leaning too hard on florid banter (dialogue this dense needs to be handled with the rat-a-tat rhythms of screwball comedy in order to really sing). But once the parameters of the story are in place and we fall into the rhythm of the thing, the dialogue becomes an asset. Following the initial seance, there follows an extended sequence– pretty much the entire second act of the film– almost entirely devoid of the supernatural, save the occasional flicker of the lights or a radio inexplicably turning itself on. Instead, Brooklyn 45 shifts into the allegorical realm of a classic Twilight Zone episode. There is no suspense as to whether or not there is a haunting afoot, which is more or less settled in the first fifteen minutes when Fessenden barfs a pool of ectoplasm onto the table; rather, it’s a drawing room mystery of who can be trusted, and who is still fighting a still-recent war. At times, Brooklyn 45 doesn’t even resemble a stage play; with minimal tweaking, it could play just as well as one of the suspense radio dramas these characters might listen to.
Thankfully, Geohegan compensates for the film’s hyperverbal nature by making it frankly gorgeous to look at. Though 90% of the film takes place within a single room, it’s a great room; its deep-green wallpaper, oaken furniture, and seemingly endless sepia-tone photos and framed memorabilia make it sneakily inviting, aided in no small part by the lush bed of 78s keening from the wireless. The feeling isn’t lived in, necessarily– we are past the point of any filmmakers but the oldest of masters relying on firsthand memories of the 1940s– but the nostalgia nevertheless feels earnest and earned. This film takes place in the 1945 of the American memory, simultaneously basking in its comforts and rooting out some uncomfortable truths.
Likewise, the characters here are all archetypes– the crew-cutted major, the derring-do hero, the tough-as-nails dame– but all shaded in with a sense of what really happens during wartime, and what comes back with those heroes. The performances are excellent across the board, particularly Ramsay, whose sad eyes belie the men’s view of her as “everybody’s sweetheart”; as an interrogator, she more than any of them has witnessed the cruelty of war. Marla walks with a cane, but it soon becomes clear that all have come out wounded in one way or another. The ghosts were there well before they all joined hands around the table.
Brooklyn 45 takes the form of a drawing-room mystery, so it is a bit disappointing that there isn’t actually very much mystery. Part of the genius of Rod Serling and his brilliant stable of Twilight Zone writers was the way they manipulated their viewers into questioning their very premises: Is there a man on the wing? Are there monsters on Maple Street? Here, despite the parceled out twists and stunning revelations about our characters, the two central threads– the existence of the supernatural and whether or not Susie Hockstadder was right about her “sinister” German neighbors– are never really in question for more than a beat or two. Without this guessing game to keep us off balance the film occasionally repeats itself, and the ending can’t help but feel a little anticlimactic.
But I don’t want to harp on the negative, because Brooklyn 45 is everything an independent horror movie should be: by turns scary, funny, and heartbreaking, and far too personal to have been created by committee. This is the promise of low-to-mid-budget streaming originals, which seems so simple but is so rarely fulfilled: a platform for smart young filmmakers to tell stories too weird and idiosyncratic for the multiplex. Like a ghost in the parlor or a memory you can’t unsee, Brooklyn 45 will stick with you long after the credits roll.
dir. Ted Geohegan
Now streaming on Shudder