A really well made, low budget ghost story is always fun to watch. Unfortunately, uneven effort Fertile Ground can't quite keep the scares coming, and falters after the first act. But what a first act!
The story centers on a young couple: Nate Weaver (Gale Harold), a painter, and his fashion designer wife Emily (Leisha Hailey). Emily has a miscarriage early in a pregnancy, and the pair decides to move back to Nate's ancestral home in the country, to get away from the hustle and bustle of the big city and try to get their life back on track. As luck would have it, the isolated farmhouse has been the scene of a number of gruesome deaths, and is also inhabited by a couple of not so nice spirits.
The first real indication that something is amiss comes when a plumbing problem ends up revealing the skeleton of a woman buried in the yard. Emily's investigations into the identity of the body lead her to the offices of local historian Avery Hutchins (Chelcie Ross), which provides a few moments of subtle humor to ease the tension. As one might expect, things go poorly for the young couple. Nate becomes more and more morose and irritable, not even buoyed up by the revelation that Emily is miraculously pregnant again. And Emily begins to see strange things: the bloody figure of a woman, visions of the wicked William Weaver, long dead, objects moving when no hand is near. Her own descent into paranoia and fear mirrors her husband's slide into anger and bitterness.
The disappointing thing about Fertile Ground is that the first act is so smashingly good, followed by much less impressive fare. The drawn out and ineffective second act fumbles things enough that the third act, though it improves, does not pack the punch that it should. One's hopes run high as the film begins. The setup is efficient, but still gives us a good sense of Emily and Nate, both as individuals and as a couple. They are likeable people with good chemistry, and we are invested in what happens to them. The mood is well set in the old farmhouse, though the crib, the only thing decked with cobwebs when they move in, is a bit unsubtle. The isolation of the house is enhanced by the growing distance between Emily and Nate. Loneliness is almost another character. The jump scares are inventive and unique, and the film is manipulative in the best sense of the word. It's like watching the master magician doing card tricks. We know what is coming and to some degree understand how it's done, but this doesn't prevent us from being moved and shaken when we see it. The only real criticism about the first act is the inclusion of title cards, which are distracting and unnecessary.
And then comes the second act. This middle portion of the film should be where the tension is screwed up to almost unbearable levels, making the viewer long for the emotional release of the climax. Alas, unneeded character development is presented instead. Perhaps Nate and his agent Risa (Stephanie Brown) are having an affair, and perhaps not. It's never resolved. Emily throws a party to celebrate her pregnancy. Nate disapproves. An unfortunate death occurs. Much of this could have been lightly glossed over in favor of atmosphere and dread. But the genius level knowledge of how to frighten and discomfit that was on display at first seems to stumble here. Ghosts can be seen a little too clearly, for too long, in too much light. A few effects are too obviously CG, in particular a flash of William Weaver outside of a window. Nate's seeming transformation or possession by William is a hair too obvious. Whatever the reason, the tension drains out in the middle of the film, and though things get better as the end nears, it can never quite get its mojo back.
This is not to say that Fertile Ground is without merit, though one should avoid putting words that rhyme with "myrtle" in the title of one's film. The production values are top notch, particularly for an independent film like this. It was shot digitally, and is almost indistinguishable from film. The house is a practical set, serving for both interior and exterior locations, and the realism and solidity this lends are palpable. And then there are the performances. Leisha Hailey is the standout here, reaching to great emotional depths on one hand, and yet showing remarkable subtlety and nuance on the other. Hers is an outstanding performance, and she lends a grounded reality and emotional honesty to the film. Gale Harold is no slouch either, and the two are quite believable as a couple, and he easily plays counterpoint to his talented partner. The supporting cast is all good as well, with special emphasis on Chelcie Ross as Hutchins, who adds the occasional touch of comedy without pushing things into absurdity.
Fertile Ground has a lot going for it, but that darned mushy middle prevents it from reaching the greatness that it almost achieved. This is not quite a haunted house classic, but still recommended.
The video is presented in 1.78:1 widescreen, and looks very good. The colors are warm and smooth, and the image is crisp. Until the director mentioned this being shot digitally in the commentary, there was very little clue that this was not on film. Other than a few moments of mild posterization, no problems are visible.
The audio is available in both Dolby digital 5.1 channel and 2 channel, and has no issues. The film is mostly underscored, and the music is given a good, subtle presentation. The dialogue is always clearly audible. English and Spanish subtitles are included, but no alternate language tracks.
There are a few extras included on the disc. They are:
This is exactly what it sounds like, a gallery of storyboards for the film, lasting about two and a half minutes. Slight, but interesting.
Also From Lionsgate
Red band trailers are included for Husk, Prowl and Seconds Apart. Commercials are also included for Fearnet HD, Epix and Break.com.
Audio Commentary with Writer / Director Adam Gierasch, Writer Jace Anderson and Actress Leisha Hailey
This is the most substantial extra included, and quite interesting. All three participants are personable and easy to listen to. Gierasch and Anderson, who are married, discuss the origins for some pieces of the film, and the production process, with plenty of anecdotes on the struggles of independent film making. Hailey gives plenty of insight as well. This is worth the time spent on it.
Fertile Ground has great aspirations, and very nearly lives up to them, with an outstanding first act, and passionate performances. However, a somewhat dull middle portion drains the momentum and dramatic energy, and leaves the final product less impactful than it could have been. Nevertheless, there is a lot to admire and appreciate here. This is much better fare than is normally found in the low budget horror field.