A found location can be a low budget filmmaker’s salvation. Production value is a tough commodity when you’ve got limited funds. Legend has it that producer/director Herk Harvey stumbled across the abandoned Saltair Pavilion in Salt Lake City, Utah and was inspired to create the terror classic Carnival of Souls. Session 9 benefited from the spooky setting of the Danvers State Mental Hospital in Danvers, Massachusetts while other homemade horror films have used decaying spaces as the foundation of their fear. From old theaters to desiccated homes, the unintentional set can offer the epic where only the average existed before.
In the case of the new frightfest Closed for the Season, it is the Chippewa Lake Amusement Park, long out of business and falling apart, that writer/director Jay Woelfel uses as a means of telling his urban legend ghost story. Like many of these places all over the world, time and lack of interest have turned the once vital playground into a cemetery of forgotten fun. Unfortunately, no matter the level of ambience achieved by the stunning backdrop, the movie’s mediocre message constantly countermands it. And thus we have the found location’s Achilles Heel. No matter how stunning it is, the crappy crew exploiting it can render the mood mute.
You see, Woelfel isn’t interested in a standard slasher exercise. He’s not letting a monster loose along the decrepit midway or suggesting something supernatural among the rotting rollercoaster and condemned funhouse. No, this movie wants to deal with memory…confusing, counterproductive memory. Our leads – Kristy (Aimee Brooks) and James (Damien Maffei) have a personal history with the park, each one experiencing their own minor tragedies there as children. She lost her prized teddy bear. He watched his friend get permanently injured in a freak accident before a fire took his family. Yet instead of making something sinister out of that past, Woelfel introduces a ridiculous Greek Chorus character known as the Carny (Joe Unger), whose all talk and no terror. By the end, we just want everyone to shut up and go away.
Like several contradictory conversations going on at once, Closed for the Season only makes sense to the person behind all the bedlam. For Woelfel, this must all mean something – the ghostly gangsters, the quasi-Creature from the Black Lagoon, the weird clown band, the Civil War giant (?), and the strange handicapped pal. Like a chef who throws eight or nine incongruous items on a dish hoping that you’ll think its haute cuisine, this movie is an indigestible mess. It doesn’t tell an interesting story, scenes sometimes don’t match up to one another narratively, the idea of using the concept of ‘haunting’ as a way of arguing for a place’s permanent appeal doesn’t work, and by the end, we aren’t sure who’s living, who’s dead, who’s real and who’s not. Even with a couple of false ending twists meant to blow our mind, Closed for the Season can’t make heads or tails of itself.
Even worse, the acting is just awful. Unger is acceptable whenever he’s onscreen, though it’s hard not to think of him as an even more bizarre Stuart Lancaster from Beyond the Valley of the Ultravixens. If being verbose is your idea of creepy, then the Carny is the scariest thing ever put on film, no question. This guys never shuts up – which is fine when you consider how dull Brooks and Maffei are. She is the worst kind of scream queen, more whiny and wounded than up to the challenge. During the last act, she is almost intolerable. At least our supposed hero does do a few formulaic things. Yet he also suffers from a significant lack of backbone, a shrill sensibility that makes us want to kick his butt. Indeed, all throughout Closed for the Season, you keep hoping that some real villains – paranormal or otherwise – will show up and clean house. We expect a certain level of victimization. We don’t want to feel more motivated than the killers.
Naturally, almost all of this is Woelfel’s fault. He takes the remnants of Chippewa Lake and reduces them to bystanders in their own movie. We never really explore the site. Kristy and James just position themselves in front of a forgotten snack stand or a rusted ride…and then nothing. Just dialogue. Just dullness. Even when a bit of low rent CG is used to brighten things up (the wheelchair bound character’s fate is illustrated in a computer-aided flashback that’s barely successful), the approach lacks pizzazz. Woelfel is clearly a journeyman, not a visionary. He can barely muster up the macabre, let alone a level of intensity or suspense. Sure, he keeps the focus narrow by only bringing in a quartet of characters, but these people are so vapid and unimportant that we don’t know why we should bother. Woelfel never gives us a reason.
As a result, Closed for the Season is like a trip through a cut rate carnival. The attractions are garbage, the sideshow sucks, the prizes are impossible to win, and everything smells of rancid fried dough and desperation. Nothing draws us in – with the vague exception of the setting – and nothing compels us to stay. Instead, only the true horror fan will find reason to sit through the overlong running time, hoping that something horrific happens. Instead, for everyone else, this will be one trip down a found location’s lane of memory that you’ll want to skip.