In the late 1890s, a series of strange deaths occurred in the small town of Black River Falls, Wisconsin. Murders were committed for no apparent reason, often by friends and loved ones. Countless infants fell victim to diphtheria, an acute bacterial infection. People were supposedly haunted by ghosts, possessed by spirits, and thrown into a profound state of depression, paranoia, and insanity.
Ah, the good old days.
I'd never heard much about these events prior to viewing director James Marsh's overlooked masterpiece Wisconsin Death Trip (1999). Largely based on the 1973 book of the same name by Michael Lesy, this film serves as a modern re-telling of what happened in Black River Falls and the surrounding areas. Wisconsin Death Trip walks a fine line between documentary and drama, and is often comparable to a moving photo album. Authentic photographs are shown during this film, as well as narratives based on actual newspaper records from the time period. New footage has also been re-enacted and blended in with the pictures and words, creating a stunning combination of nightmarish tragedy and stark realism.
The man behind the typewriter represents the newspaper editor of the time period. Played by actor Jeffrey Gordon, he speaks not a word, but we can hear his thoughts as he types away nervously. The narratives are provided by veteran actor Ian Holm (Alien, The Sweet Hereafter, and of course The Lord of the Rings), who lends an almost numbing sense of authority to the events as they unfold. There are no speaking parts for any characters, in fact...these re-enactments are largely set to a haunting musical score, heightening their emotional impact. Many times, these black and white images become almost too much to bear, and many viewers may have a hard time with the disturbing subject matter (even though the film runs a brisk 76 minutes). Luckily, there are a few 'rest periods' in the form of colorful montages of modern life in Black River Falls.
Comprised of local events and everyday town life, these 'rest periods' are a welcome break from the onslaught of earlier events. Children are at play, locals relax in the sun, and it's hard to believe that this is the same town. Undoubtedly, death and violence are present everywhere in the world, but these brief scenes provide a temporary escape---without them, the movie would easily collapse in on itself. It was a smart move by director Marsh, who obviously considered this film a labor of love. From start to finish, this is a very competent effort by the first-time director, who chose to give very unusual advice when coaching his performers.
'Do nothing,' he told them.
In both the scenes of color and black and white, the overwhelming majority of the performances were completely improvised. Acting was very naturalistic in style, creating a heightened sense of realism. Most of the performers had never been in front of a camera before, and were chosen more for their unique appearances than their acting experience. In fact, the entire crew (including Marsh himself) makes appearances during the film. At the heart of this film is a very human sense of profound emotion, and the natural performances by the cast help reinforce this idea.
Make no mistake about it, Wisconsin Death Trip isn't for everyone. Many murders are shown in graphic detail (including numerous hangings and gunshot wounds). Infants, children and adults are shown resting silently in caskets. However, it must be noted that no clear-cut answers are provided for these deaths. This is a deeply moving film that will affect you, and it's not light entertainment by any means. However, deep beneath the dark and chaotic surface lies a very reverent and spiritual film. Even though people die for no apparent reason, life goes on and the human race survives. Both the original book and this film are invaluable pieces of American history, doubling as near-perfect glimpses into the light and dark sides of small-town life.
Wisconsin Death Trip is finally available on DVD from Home Vision Entertainment, highlighted by an outstanding technical presentation and several enlightening bonus features. It's destined to be one of the most underrated releases of this year, but belongs on the shelf of any serious film lover. Without any further delay, here's the full scoop:
Quality Control Department
One important consideration for this film was its extremely tight budget. However, the production values for Wisconsin Death Trip are surprisingly high, and features some of the most beautifully shot compositions of recent memory. Mentioned earlier, this film is much like a virtual photo album, blending hundred year-old photographs with modern footage. Most of the footage was shot on Super 16 film at 32 frames per second, resulting in a dream-like and atmospheric effect. Black and white images are stunning, and scenes of color are extremely bold and vivid. While a few specks of dirt can be seen here and there (as well as the expected amount of grain for some of the footage), this is an excellent visual effort that captures the mood of the film perfectly. Wisconsin Death Trip really earns high marks in the visual department, if only for accomplishing so much with so little.
Like the video, we're also treated to a wonderfully atmospheric audio presentation. Presented in a very rich and robust 2.0 Stereo track, there's an incredible ambience during the entire film that really commands attention. The only minor complaint that comes to mind is some of the audio overlapping, which occasionally makes some of Ian Holm's excellent narratives a little on the quiet side. Whether this was intentional or not, it's not a major issue and even forces the viewer to pay closer attention to every word. Overall, a very solid technical presentation for a film that truly deserved it.
Menu Design and Presentation:
The menu designs are very fitting, capturing the tone of the film perfectly. The main menu is animated, with appropriately striking black and white photography---not to mention the haunting main theme as an audio backdrop. Navigation is also simple and straightforward. The packaging also deserves special mention: stark photos and descriptions are presented on the keepcase artwork, and a nice insert booklet is also included (with an essay by Greil Marcus, who has written for Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, and The New York Times). Even the disc art itself is striking. Overall, Wisconsin Death Trip is blessed with a very polished presentation indeed.
On board this disc are a few great extras, headlined by a feature-length Audio Commentary with director James Marsh and the film's Director of Photography. Marsh does the majority of the speaking here (about 75%), providing great insight into his experiences during Wisconsin Death Trip. He is very reverent to the tragic events themselves, but also makes reminds viewers that similar events still occur today (in case you don't follow the news). Marsh also points out a few notable locals, the most interesting being a young-looking 104 year-old who was alive during some of the later events. The Director of Photography also provides a few tidbits and experiences, but remains mostly silent unless prompted by the director. Overall, a great track that maintains the proper mood of the film while adding several new layers to the experience.
Next up are a series of four Deleted Scenes, which run briefly for about 6 minutes. All four of these are additional events and stories from the past and present, and are also very faithful with the film's tone. The fourth scene, entitled 'Headless Bodies', was especially well done, and could have easily been part of the main feature.
Lastly, we get a 23-minute featurette entitled Midwestern Gothic: The Making of Wisconsin Death Trip. Although the opening sequence is awkwardly out of place with the overall tone of the film, it's interesting to see some of the footage in a more modern presentation. Some would argue that this featurette might spoil the mystery of the film, but I found it to be a nice inclusion. Several of the key cast members are also present, and seem to be in great spirits despite the film's somber tone. James Marsh is also on board, and offers some additional comments and experiences on and off the set.
I can't think of much else that would have been appropriate bonus material for this release, save for a photo gallery of images and newspaper clippings, or even more participation by author Michael Lesy. While the deleted scenes stand well on their own, it also would have been nice to hear more from director James Marsh, or even the Director of Photography. Other than that, an isolated music score would also have been a welcome inclusion. Still, it's worth noting that this is a very satisfying disc that covers most of the bases perfectly.
This was a very memorable film, and the DVD presentation is equally impressive. Wisconsin Death Trip is a little-known movie about a little-known series of tragic events that will grab your attention and hold it tightly. From the absolutely striking imagery to the haunting musical score, the film is a true work of art. Thankfully, the film is supported with fantastic audio and video quality, and a handful of fine supplements are thrown in for good measure. While this one may not be for everyone, it's most certainly an important achievement and should be seen by anyone interested in the darker side of American history. Hopefully, Wisconsin Death Trip will not be one of the most overlooked releases this year, because it's really worth seeking out. Highly Recommended.
Other Links of Interest:
Official Website for Wisconsin Death Trip
(Includes additional historical links)
Randy Miller III is an art instructor and gallery assistant based in Harrisburg, PA, who also enjoys freelance graphic design and illustration. When he's not doing that, his hobbies include slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.