A small town’s bicentennial celebrations are enlivened by the arrival of an old piano sent from England. It once belonged to the founding father of the town and his descendants have returned it as a goodwill gesture. Or was their motive something slightly more sinister?
Bill Rebane is what is rather euphemistically called a ‘regional filmmaker.’ In other words, micro-budgeted productions shot entirely on a small-town location, usually with the co-operation and sometimes the participation, of local residents. Rebane’s stomping ground was rural Wisconsin and he is best remembered amongst enthusiasts of low-budget films for his epic monster fest ‘The Giant Spider Invasion’ (1975). Although the title infers lots of outsized critters, there was in fact only one, and it bore an unfortunate resemblance to a furry Volkswagen with some legs stuck on. No matter. By the 1980s the emerging video craze meant a ready-made market for low-budget horror and Rebane dived right in.
This film tells the tale of a rural community, blighted for the last 200 years by a curse placed on them by founding father Efram Ludlow. He was packed off to England after some unspecified activities that incurred the displeasure of the local populace. Perhaps he was wearing black t-shirts and listening to heavy metal? We never really find out. Anyway, his descendants send back his old Joanna and, despite the town elders seemingly in the know about this curse thing, they put it on the stage in the Town Hall. After that, some weird stuff starts to happen, mainly involving an out of control smoke machine and some garish, multi-coloured lighting…
Things go from bad to worse when a young girl is dismembered, and there’s no local law enforcement to help. The Mayor seems disinclined to ask for any official assistance either, on the grounds that no-one can help. Apparently, this is entirely up to him! In the best tradition of ‘Jaws’ (1975), he’s worried about what all these pesky demons will do to the local tourist industry, even though there’s six feet of snow on the ground, and not even a glimpse of one single, solitary holidaymaker. Hell, the town doesn’t even seem to have any streets!
It’s easy to forget that some of the things that we take for granted today, even on low-budget projects, probably weren’t available to a filmmaker like Rebane back then. Things like a decent colour process, fluid camera movement, slick editing, and a good sound mix. All are noticeable by their absence here. But some of the other deficiencies aren’t so excusable. The ghostly piano is a white upright model, but sounds an awful lot like a harmonium, and one of the characters refers to it as such, which probably means the prop department didn’t really deliver. They also come up short with the ancient manuscript, which is a large scrap of tatty paper. We never see what’s written on it, because it’s only ever filmed from behind with characters holding it up!
Also there’s an obvious lack of available interiors for filming, so we get a parade of repetitious scenes, and a snail’s pace. ‘Do you know anything about that piano?’ asks nosey reporter Stephanie Cushna, to which the scintillating answer is ‘No, l’m sorry I don’t.’ End of conversation. Yes, the script is desperately poor, and never gels into anything remotely approaching logic or common sense. There’s a ghostly girl in period dress, floating pokers, some homemade gore, and sword wielding soldiers (or are they pirates?), but nothing really works.
lt’s fairly clear Rebane was aiming for something in the ballpark of John Carpenter’s ‘The Fog’ (1980) but you won’t be surprised to hear that he doesn’t even come close. To be fair, some of the cast give credible performances, including Cushna, and Carol Perry is a surprisingly natural presence as the bullying piano player, but there’s little they can do to make sense of it all.
A more fully developed storyline and a better script would have helped immensely, but the obvious lack of available resources and expertise were probably always going to be too great a challenge to overcome.