Anyone who knows anything about the indie Horror scene will be more than aware of the amount of cost-cutting through multi-tasking that goes on in it, with directors invariably doubling up as writers and producers and sometimes actors as well. But few manage to put in as much work under such a wide variety of job titles as co-writer Julie Sap in "The Haunting of Marsten Manor", though: while David Greenlaw Sap (presumably her husband?) handled the directorial duties, Julie not only co-wrote the screenplay with him; she also produced the film, edited it, composed the music for it and acts in it, playing the striking role of the mysterious, ghostly 'woman in black' who haunts the protagonists as they potter about the creepy titular Manor house. While the Saps should be congratulated on avoiding a reliance on the cheap gore and poor-ass slasher cliches which make up the vast bulk of US indie horror's output, this attempt to tell a traditional ghost story falls well short of the mark -- even though Mrs Sap turns out to be its main highlight as the eerie wafting presence who returns from the Civil War era to the present day -- apparently in order to torment her blind relative who has unknowingly inherited her old home.
When elderly Dorothy Marsten (Janice Knickrehm) dies in what has been the ancestral home of the Marstens ever since it was first erected in the early-eighteen hundreds by Silus and Lillian Marsten in New England, her niece Jill (Brianne Davis) finds herself unexpectedly made its new proprietor -- despite never having had any previous contact with the old aunt who lived there all her life. Nevertheless, she agrees to go and have a look at it, taking her best friends Rob (Ken Luckey) and Erika (an early role for Christine Wood of "Flash Forward" fame) along for the adventure. Jill is a troubled young woman: an inherited genetic condition has resulted in her becoming completely blind in early adulthood, and her inability to accept the situation often sees her lashing out at those who are unaware of her condition ... such as the Marsten family lawyer for instance, who has the bad luck to comment on her cheerful 'bright eyes' whilst filling her in on her new inheritance. 'I'm not bright eyed ... I'M BLIND!' she stridently informs him. Jill tends to rely on her two friends, but refuses to use her stick. Rob is secretly in love with her, but neither party will admit it; while Erika is full of tedious self-help advice. Later on, we learn that Jill has 'lost her faith' (yawn!) because of her situation.
When the three friends finally find the house (after a brief run-in with an unpleasant gas attendant on the way there), trouble of a supernatural nature would seem to be on the cards from the off when the door unlocks by itself, as though beckoning them over the threshold. The house is of a traditional old Victorian vintage, still furnished in its original -- now-antique -- furniture and elegant panelling, with fading Victorian portraits on the walls. No sooner have they entered the place, though, than Jill experiences the first of her 'visions': a dark-haired woman in black Victorian garb who glares at her menacingly. At first she thinks her sight is returning, but after more ghostly goings-on such as creaking floorboards and banging shutters, not to mention an echoy voice whispering on her voice-activated webcam, Jill realises that she is seeing imprints from the house and its occupants of the past. She is even able to find a hidden switch for opening a secret closet behind a bookcase, all because of what she 'sees' in her blind visions. The discovery of the family bible, with unnerving passages underlined in red ink, such as 'fear and dread will fall upon you', lead the friends to at first suspect that the daughter of Silus and Lillian had been raised in an insular climate of Biblically induced fright before she herself took-over the running of the house in later adulthood. But then, Erika catches sight of the gas attendant who they argued with on their way to the manor house, being 'paid off' by Rob -- and she starts to suspect that the whole haunting has been set up and somehow faked by him. But to what end? When Erika discovers Jill has gone missing during the night, she begins to suspect the worst.
"The Haunting of Marsten Manor" moves achingly slowly and is unfortunately largely lacking in the required atmosphere. While some of the performances are fair, others are terribly stilted, although the clunky dialogue (particularly when addressing the protagonist's blindness) is the film's major pitfall and cannot always be disguised by the acting, even when it's good. The screenplay's numerous attempts to wrong foot the audience about the nature of what is actually going on in the house are artificial at best and there are several unresolved puzzles (like who exactly was that in Jill's bedroom behind the curtain?) to contend with as well. The rather anaemic, shot-on-video look of the film isn't capable of providing it with the kind of Gothic flavour such ghostly tales demand; and although Julie Sap's ghostly visitor is quite effective and creepy, and her scenes (which appear to have been shot on film that's then been reversed) are the highlight of the film (particularly when all three characters find themselves caught up in the events which took place in the house in the 1860s during the American Civil War) ultimately it all falls rather flat. After Jill discovers a previously unsuspected connection between herself and Kate Marsten, the film becomes little more than a toe-curling Christian morality tale about not blaming God for our woes in life (since it invariably tends to be the case that anything good in life is automatically credited to Him, it does seem reasonable that He should cop some of the blame for the bad stuff too, but that's just me!). It's actually more like something you'd expect to see on the Hallmark channel on a sleepy Sunday afternoon than a nerve-curdling harbinger of chilly scares, and one is liable to feel somewhat cheated as it spirals towards it sentimental and not very convincing end.
"The Haunting of Marsten Manor" comes to UK DVD via MVM, who give this digital poverty row production a decent anamorphic widescreen transfer, while the disc also comes with a trailer for this and all the other current horror titles in the MVM catalogue.