Home»A FEATURED STORY»‘Inheritance of the Dead’ expresses terror through what might happen as much as what does

‘Inheritance of the Dead’ expresses terror through what might happen as much as what does

Film playing at Manhattan Short Film Festival in Great Falls on Friday

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Sometimes what people find to be terrifying isn’t what we see, but what you MIGHT see. That anticipation can cause a deep sense of dread, especially when the possible outcomes are gruesome.

That’s the central idea that revs through the new short film “Inheritance of the Dead,” written and directed by Great Falls filmmaker Gerald Bickel.

Throughout the story we see the antagonist, portrayed by Keern Haslem, in various situations where the tension between him and the other characters will make you feel as if something or someone started squeezing your waist. The pressure gradually starts to build and build until you finally, at the end, receive a much-needed release where you can exhale.

The film, just under 17 minutes, plays to Bickel’s strengths as a filmmaker. His visual work and cinematography may be his best yet here, and it all has a professional feel to it that looks like something shot in Hollywood by a large studio, not an indie filmmaker here in Montana.

The story starts with text mentioning how the Great Falls Police Department received an audio recording mentioning a murder confession of five people, with each murder committed in a different state. Then a voiceover shares the central gist of the story — how the killer’s adopted grandparents had drafted a will leaving him and his sister with their inheritance, but after their grandmother died, their grandpa instead chose to leave everything to his sister, which sparked his murder spree.

The film shows those killings in real time, interspersed with several inner visualizations by the killer. It’s also here that we get to see the power of how the characters communicate with one another without actually saying anything.

The killer’s sister is played wonderfully by Casey Ayers. She expresses anger, and then shock when her brother arrives at her place of employment. That shock then turns to panic when her young son, played by Bickel’s own son Quinton, crawls out from the back. Her eyes scream “stay away!” while Haslem’s express, “it’s killing time, my dear.” Little Quinton later appears alone in Ayers’ vehicle when the killer shows up and again causes a deep sense of “Oh no, what’s going to happen?” just merely by his presence.

Casey Ayers pictured here in a scene from "Inheritance of the Dead."
Casey Ayers pictured here in a scene from “Inheritance of the Dead.”

Back to the store scene, a also vagrant shows up, played by Danny Lopez. He seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. He’s caught up in the killer’s gaze, as well, and the vagrant’s panic, added to the psychotic looks from the killer, add that much more to the tension. Lopez shows up a few more times and each of his scenes show why he’s such a versatile actor.

I enjoyed the way Bickel chose not to show a ton of blood and guts in ways that would’ve made Alfred Hitchcock smile. For example, Hitchcock once said, “There is a distinct difference between “suspense” and “surprise,” and yet many pictures continually confuse the two.” There’s no confusion here, that’s for certain.

With that idea in mind, Bickel makes the scenes suspenseful without relying on any elements of surprise. We know that someone’s probably going to be killed, but it still sends a chill down your spine as you watch it start to happen.

Another solid effort was how well the subtle effects were done. When someone gets hit by a bat, for instance, it looks like the person is really getting harmed by it. The makeup and the small amounts of blood work all were done quite well, also.

Danny Lopez in a scene from "Inheritance of the Dead."
Danny Lopez in a scene from “Inheritance of the Dead.”

All three main characters come across as real people. Their reactions seem like ones that anyone in their shoes might feel. There’s no question about what emotions they’re feeling, either, even though there’s very little dialogue throughout. The choice of the Stranger Things store is a nice touch, as well. It’s interior is a visual treat with a lot of things to look at. Maybe a little TOO much at times, but it’s not overly distracting.

The picture is not without it’s issues, however.

Several of the story arcs go somewhat unresolved, for one. The start of the picture mentions that the police department received an audio recording, but we never find out what was done by the police in response.

It almost feels a little like the plot and the visual scenes play out on two different paths that have only a little interaction between them. It’s just that you’re left a little unsure of how the idea of the inheritance relates to what we’re watching. Why were the others killed? What happened to their bodies? Was there any connection between them and the killer?

That being said, a short film in my opinion can still be an effective piece of art without needing to resolve these things like a full-length picture would. It can serve as a vehicle to feel the suspense, horror and panic that all are expressed well here by the characters, shot choices, and the visual storytelling. If I had one gripe with the visuals it’s that there’s several details in the background that can distract a bit from what’s going on. There’s a prominent phone number behind the killer in one scene and another there’s a child-rearing device that you can’t help but wonder if it was meant to be there or not.

It’s also worth noting that the picture does technically have a beginning, a climax and a conclusion, it’s just that the way they’re communicated aren’t what you might expect them to be when you first start watching.

Overall I’d say “Inheritance of the Dead,” is a well-produced picture by Mr. Bickel. Having watched his older pictures, there’s been continual growth and improvement between one to the next each time. He’s starting to blossom as a filmmaker in tangible ways.

If you’d like to see this film and you’re in Great Falls, it will be shown at the Manhattan Short International Film Festival event at Paris Gibson Square on Friday. The festival starts at 8 p.m. There will be a short Q and A with the actors and director afterward, as well. You can find more information here. 

Note: The author has acted in two plays directed or produced by Keern Haslem at Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art in Great Falls. 

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