Family dramas are ripe with horror stories. There is a reason they work so well with the genre. Good horror is intimate and disturbing and, if done right, very personal regardless of the storyline. As part of the Brooklyn Horror Film Fest, What Josiah Saw is a punishing two-hour-long exercise in exorcising your demons. Sometimes evil that is deeply rooted can’t ever be cleansed. Billed as this year’s The Dark And The Wicked, it shares more DNA with underappreciated Frailty. All three films have families in crisis returning home and themes of supernatural possession. But Frailty and What Josiah Saw focus on the monstrousness of humanity coupled with demons of the personal and hellish variety.
What Josiah Saw is a literal house of cards built on torment and lies. Something awful happened in that home that changed the very cell structure of the farm. Sometimes rot that deep can’t be eradicated. It can only be acknowledged and avoided like the plague. But, for the Graham family, the farm is a chance to run from the past and profit from the misery. An oil company wants to buy the cursed land if the siblings can agree to sell. The film told over four acts is part insidious ghost story, part family drama, and gritty noir. Surprisingly Director Vincent Grashaw manages to make each part work and compliment the other until the seering conclusion that is as maddening as it is unsettling.
Grashaw has a knack for getting the most of his actors. Pain, suffering, madness, and abject fear flow from their eyes and are framed by his intelligent direction. His ultra-violent style seen in Bellflower and Coldwater highlights the absolute worst of humanity when pushed either by circumstance or boredom. He is excellent at capturing the hideousness of the banal, and he aims that same laser focus towards this Southern Gothic horror hybrid.
In the first act of What Josiah Saw, fevered religious zealotry spews from Robert Patrick’s grizzled countenance. Supernaturally charged, his exchanges feel too hot and weird to be real. The more judgemental and harsh his beliefs, the bluer his eyes get. He lives with the youngest of the family Tommy(Scott Haze). Haze does an admirable job keeping the damaged Tommy from completely losing credibility, which makes the conclusion even more devastating. He moved back to the farm in the wake of a failed marriage and is in denial about his ex-wife and child. In between tinkering with a lumbering, belching old tractor, he listens to the poison his father breathes into him. Unfortunately, his father’s words too easily sway his fragile mind, and their interactions are as taboo as they are tragic.
Patrick’s Josiah is a vicious, intolerant, abusive man who has ruled over his clan for so long he has long lost anything good or sane. The family’s mother died when the children were much younger. She hung herself from a tree right outside the house, and there have been rumors ever since about ghosts and hauntings. All three siblings were deeply affected by their collective childhood trauma, and all bear the scars. In the first and shortest chapter of What Josiah Saw, Tommy is tormented by a need to atone. His father reminds him constantly they are all sinners who must make amends regardless of the cost.
The second chapter is Eli’s, and it is a complete departure from the early tone of the film. He is an addict and sex offender who shuffles through life from one fix to another. When his gambling debts become too high, he gets lured into a bizarre heist to steal Romani Nazi gold. It is a strangely hypnotic sequence that feels as much like a dream as a gritty crime story. Dance segments, ominous fortune-telling beats, and more physical violence than you think you could pack into a tiny trailer spill out into Eli’s world until he’s saving one child, which makes you question even more the murky finale.
Nick Stahl is excellent at capturing Eli’s same desperate lived-in rurality that he has a talent for. There is something so gritty and lost about his Eli. He has been dealt a bad hand. He’s not a terrific person, but it isn’t entirely his fault, and the countless scars on his back prove it. Years of addiction, both substance, and gambling, have taken their toll on his tired but still handsome face. He is the face of wasted youth and opportunity snuffed out by a cruel world and even crueler father. He’s the kind of damaged trouble you see coming a mile away but are paralyzed to run from. Eli is a lost little boy in an adult body grasping for something better while incapable of attaining it.
Chapter 3 of What Josiah Saw introduces Mary, a troubled young woman who punishes herself with grueling workouts that seem more like preparation for battle than concern for physical fitness. She and Eli are twins and the younger siblings to Tommy. They are all estranged but forced to reconcile over the sale of the farm. Kelli Garner is tremendous as brittle Mary. There is a ferocious vulnerability to her performance that is achingly painful to watch as well as terrifying to examine. She lives with a vanilla middle-class husband and both want to adopt a child but have been unable to so far partly due to Mary’s regretted decision to be sterilized many years before.
Garner is a bruising beaten dog of a character who is just as likely to cower from you as to bite unexpectedly. Her palpable need for a child is brutal, and her single-minded focus is only broken when her twin Eli shows up wanting her help with the farm. Their decision to return home to Tommy and the ghosts of their past is a consequential one.
The final chapter plays out like the scariest Greek tragedy that is as ambiguous as it is horrifying. Where the truth lies and what really happens is all kept intentionally vague. Grashaw is undoubtedly making commentary about the causes and consequences of childhood trauma and the innate cruelty we are capable of.
What Josiah Saw is the kind of film that likes reveling in insidious filth. Family secrets and a childhood filled with abuse leave a mark that nothing can hide. There are skeletons in the family closet, and ghosts have come to get their pound of flesh. Yet, what Josiah Saw is as much about traditions as the traditional. Unsettling and dark, What Josiah Saw is easily one of the highlights of Brooklyn Horror Film Fest. Find all our coverage here.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.