The Burned Over District Poster

The Burned Over District (2022) Review

The somewhat obscure title of The Burned Over District refers not to somewhere ravaged by wildfires, but, according to Wikipedia, “the western and parts of the central regions of New York State in the early 19th century, where religious revivals and the formation of new religious movements of the Second Great Awakening took place, to such a great extent that spiritual fervour seemed to set the area on fire.” 

And it’s in that region that the writing and directing team of James and Vincent Coleman have set their first feature after several shorts. It begins with Will (Jon Sheedy, BIOTA) who is mourning his wife who died in a car accident while he was driving. Barely functioning and frequently drunk, he’s watched over by his sister Katie (Amy Zubieta, Walk Away, The Night House) and rather less willingly his mother Michelle (Connie Neer, We Are Still Here, Grace is Gone) who feels he just needs to “find a new girl” and move on with his life.

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While out hunting one day, Will discovers what looks like a bottomless pit in the woods. A neighbour, Fred (Robert Lindquist, Shiver, Eyes of Wild) explains it has a connection to Native American rituals, and to the practices of more recent religions as well. That’s the start of a series of events that results in Katie seeing her mother sacrificed to whatever is in that pit before she and Will are captured by Daniel Danson (Michael Ciesla, Rust Belt Driller, Clowns in the Woods) and the cult he leads.

“To anyone who has ever driven through upstate New York you tend to pass through a lot of forgotten towns and neighbourhoods where you ask yourself does anyone actually live here, and if so what do they do? How do they fit into the overall society in America? We began developing a story that answered those questions. We thought, what if one of those religious movements stuck around and lasted through the turn of the century?”

Directors’ Statement

The first part of The Burned Over District is a bit of a slow burn with just a few scenes such as Will finding the pit and Katie’s disturbing encounter with the cult while stopping for gas used to set up what’s to come. But they’re well-used and, along with several shots emphasizing how isolated the area is, establish a sense of menace and danger.

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Once the cult makes its move, however, the film’s pace picks right up and The Burned Over District starts dishing out a considerable amount of bloody violence as well as a disturbing attempt at forced impregnation. Hearts are ripped out and heads explode in considerable detail on the way to the film’s final confrontation. It’s all practical effects and well staged. CGI is used for some larger scale effects but is kept to a minimum and works quite well.

That confrontation is an attempt by the siblings to prevent whatever it is the cult worships from manifesting itself on Earth. If that sounds a bit Lovecraftian, that’s because The Burned Over District is folk horror infused with the kind of cosmic horror that’s recognizable both from the dialogue and the portal opening in the skies above the characters, even if Cthulhu is never mentioned.

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Much of this is anchored by an excellent performance by Amy Zubieta whose character arc takes her from concerned sister to victim to ruthless avenger. As her brother, John Sheedy has an equally challenging role, which he handles well for it only being his second film. Playing the cult’s leader, Michael Ciesla could have used a bit more intensity, but is otherwise believably evil. Sharp-eyed viewers may notice regional indie film regulars Tim O’Hearn (Showdown in Yesteryear, Johnny Gruesome), Bill Smith (Pact of Vengeance, Givers of Death) and Caitlyn Stephenson (Guns of Eden, Post Apocalyptic Commando Shark) among the cult members.

Despite the less than attention grabbing title, The Burned Over District is an effective and nasty little film that deserves to find an audience. Put it on a double feature with Night of the Bastard for an evening of cult mayhem.

IMDB lists The Burned Over District as scheduled for release on January 1, 2024, but it’s already available on Amazon Prime. My guess would be that’s when distributor Black Mandala will make it available on other services.

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