There's nothing like a good hybrid film. Be it a horror-comedy, such as Shaun of the Dead, or a "dramedy", like Forrest Gump, or the sci-fi horror in Alien, it's great to see filmmakers straddle two genres. But, blending different types of stories isn't as easy as it look. The Empty Acre is an independent film which wanders between drama and horror and simply can't find its balance.
The Empty Acre tells the story of Beth (Jennifer Plas) and Jacob Nance (John Wilson), a young couple who have a six month old baby, Michael (Jesse Reiser). They live on a farm in a small town in Kansas. There is a large piece of land on the farm where nothing will grow. At night, a shadow arises from the land and seemingly kills anything that it touches. Beth and Jacob have a turbulent relationship, as she doesn't like small-town life and he spends a lot of time at the local bar. One night, the shadow takes Michael from his crib. Unaware of the shadow, Beth and Jacob blame each other for the baby's disappearance. Despite help from local officials and Beth's friend Holly (Sally Bremenkamp), the couple find no relief. When Beth meets their mysterious neighbor, she begins to suspect that something odd is happening on the farm.
When you read something like "mysterious shadow takes a baby", one thinks, "This must be horror movie." (Or a spin-off of Lost). And The Empty Acre does have some horror-movie trappings, such as the town littered with missing persons posters (that has certainly become a cliche) and the dead animals. But, for the most part, the movie plays as a drama, which just happens to have some very odd happenings in the background.
So, instead of being a horror movie, as the DVD box would want us to believe, The Empty Acre is much more of an art-house drama. We witness the problems in Beth and Jacob's marriage, and we see many scenes of Beth's loneliness. The issues grow from a general unease to all-out fighting. Once the baby disappears, the movie delves deeper into despair, and becomes a full-fledged drama. During the mid-section of the film, the whole evil shadow thing takes a backseat to the baby issue, which doesn't help with the uneven tone of the film.
The drama vs. horror issues of the film pale in comparison to the story issues. In short, The Empty Acre is too ambiguous for its own good. Writer/director Patrick Rea has come up with some interesting concepts, but he doesn't know what to do with them. The movie offers little explanation for either the dead patch of land or the mysterious shadow. The ending is vague and will leave most viewers totally confused. Even if one wanted to view the whole film as symbolism, that would only get you so far. Does the barren field represent the relationship between Beth and Jacob? OK, that might work, but why does the shadow kill animals and other people? Did the shadow take the baby or did Beth or Jacob do something to it? And the subplot of the neighbor goes nowhere. The ending reminded me of the final shot of Ju-on.
To distract us from this mish-mash of the story, Rea and his co-editors Ryan S. Jones and Josh Robison, have gone overboard cutting the film. The movie vacillates between narrative scenes spliced with shots of the empty field. This is all cut together with quick cuts which resemble a channel being changed on a TV. (I doubt that this was supposed to happen, but this technique only made me think of Robot Chicken.) The real editing should have been done to the film's running time, as the 104-minute film plays like a marathon of ambiguity.
The Empty Acre can't sustain crops on DVD courtesy of Cinema Epoch. The movie has been letterboxed at 1.85:1, but the transfer is not 16 x 9. The movie was shot on non-HD video, but it still looks pretty good. The image is sharp and clear, showing no grain or defects from the source material. However, the dark scenes are very dark and it's hard to tell what's happening at times. I noted some video noise in some scenes and the colors are quite drab throughout.
The DVD has a digital stereo audio track. This track provides fairly clear dialogue, although some lines were muffled. While I didn't detect a great deal of stereo effects, there is a notable amount of bass response from the front channels. The score is filled with low tones and these created nearly subwoofer like rumbling from the front speakers.
The Empty Acre DVD contains a few extras. We start with an AUDIO COMMENTARY which features writer/director Patrick Rea, producer/co-editor Ryan S. Jones, and producers Bobby McGee and Stephen Deaver. These guys are old friends, so this is a very amiable, chatty commentary. They speak at length about the locations, and the challenges of shooting a low-budget film. Actually, they may talk too much about the locations and one could make a drinking game of this commentary given the number of times that they say, "Kevin Dobson's house". The DVD contains an ALTERNATE ENDING which runs about 3 minutes and would have fit perfectly in the movie as it makes no sense. There are also 4 brief DELETED SCENES. "Behind the Scenes" is actually a STILL GALLERY. Finally, we have one of Rea's short films, "In Search For Inflata-Boy" (8 minutes). This is a fairly dead-on spoof of In Search Of, as experts and eye-witnesses speak of "Inflata Boy", which is a wild creature wearing water-wings. This is from the same filmmaker?
Some of The Empty Acre was shot in Lawrence, Kansas, the same place where Carnival of Souls was shot. (That film even appears on a TV in The Empty Acre.) And while Carnival of Souls is a weird, flawed film, it does create a very creepy mood. The Empty Acre can't settle down long enough to create a mood, and we're left with a confusing, unsatisfying movie.