Producers: Robert Ogden Barnum, Eric Binns, Byron Wetzel and Emma Roberts Director: Spencer Squire Screenplay: Erik Patterson and Jessica Scott Cast: Emma Roberts, Jake Gallagher, Jr., Michael Shannon, Paul Schneider, Kate Arrington, Paul Dillon, Justin Matthew Smith, Addy Miller, Paxton Pope, Christian Patos, Graham Dean, Carter Matthews and Marie May Distributor: Vertical Entertainment
Post-partum depression is employed, rather tastelessly, as a horror movie plot device in “Abandoned,” the directorial debut of actor Spencer Squire. The result is likely to leave viewers depressed as well.
The first thing the title refers to is the locale, a rural farm house that been deserted, according to a title card near the opening, for forty years but still appears in surprisingly good condition. A real estate agent (Kate Arrington) is trying to encourage Sara and Alex (Emma Roberts and John Gallagher, Jr.), who are looking the place over with their infant son Liam (Marie May), to buy the place. But pressed about why the house has been listed so long without a taker, she has to admit that it’s because the place was the site of a multiple murder: a young girl (Addy Miller) had killed her father (Justin Matthew Smith) and newborn child. She even provides an official report on the case, complete with photos.
Nevertheless Sara assents to the purchase and Alex quickly signs the papers, explaining that it’s imperative they get out of the city, where Sara has been struggling with taking care of Liam, and they need a quiet place where he can establish his veterinary practice.
Of course, to do that he’ll need to be on the road a lot, visiting prospective clients like hog farmer Harrington (Paul Dillon), whose latest litter is acting strangely. That leaves Sara pretty much abandoned too, alone in a creaky house where one door is locked, the windows of a room are nailed shut, and a heavy wardrobe has been strategically placed to hide something. She begins hearing scratching sounds and what appear to be childish voices, but mostly she has to endure the crying of her own infant, whose screams fill most of the soundtrack despite the efforts of Michelle Osis’ score to compete with them. They never call in a doctor to see if there’s something wrong with the baby, who coos happily for his father, but exasperated Alex does eventually enlist a therapist (Paul Schneider) for Sara, whom he puts on the meds she’s long resisted.
There is also a nearby neighbor, Renner (Michael Shannon), a spookily withdrawn semi-recluse whose nervous manner, punctuated by long hesitations, might just remind you of Norman Bates.
Most of “Abandoned” consists of Sara wandering about the house alone as Liam bawls in the background. Roberts, dressed impeccably like a housewife in a fifties sitcom, tries desperately to make these scenes interesting, but her woodenness as an actress is a considerable hindrance, while Squire, cinematographer Corey C. Waters, production designer Madison Hatch and editors Matthew L. Weiss and Cassie Jones work hard to create a sense of menace, but nothing really works. The occasional appearances of Shannon, a master of strangeness, offer some moody moments, but he’s given little to do (except provide a basis for a last-act revelation that will come as no surprise), and the sometimes graphic cutaways to Alex’s professional activities don’t add much, beyond instilling a suspicion that perhaps what we’re dealing with is an instance of gaslighting, though Gallagher’s amiable blandness doesn’t really suggest that.
While everyone aims for suspense, however, it would have been impossible for the most skilled cast and crew to overcome the deficiencies in the script by Erik Patterson and Jessica Scott. Even in the simplest chronological terms, the plot makes little sense, and dragging out the supposedly tense sequences of Sara stumbling around the house searching for the truth results in irritation rather than suspense, especially because of Baby Liam’s incessant caterwauling. Things get even worse in the last act, which tosses in not only ghosts but a postscript that’s a true head-scratcher. Those who have stuck with the movie to the end will likely feel that they’ve been had.
A haunted house movie should be genuinely unnerving; this one is simply incoherent and dull.