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Though you may know where it’s headed, there’s enough gothic beauty and creeping tension in “Aged” to make the twisted journey worthwhile.

Aged

Aged (Harrowhouse Films, 2023) begins with a quote that at first may not seem to fit the story, which is being used as a tone-setter:

“We all have a Monster within; the difference is in degree, not in kind.” – Douglas Preston

But, like the film that follows it, there is a lot to digest and reflect on in light of whatever personal baggage about death, dying, youth, and aging the viewer may have in tow.

The film starts off strong with the striking visual of a man drinking coffee at a table in a Texas diner — a poster on the wall beside him advertising “KARMA COFFEE” with the slogan, “Get Served What You Deserve”.

He nervously taps his fingers on his own oversized cup of joe as a train rattles by through the dusty, duo-chrome badlands outside.

This is the kind of artistic direction that might place Aged dangerously close to “elevated” horror, a label that has evolved somewhat over the past decade or so from meaning a horror movie with progressive themes to basically anything that isn’t a slasher or a PG-13 Hollywood cash grab.

But if that’s what this is, this old-school horror geek wants more of it — label, schmabel.

The pair of shapely legs that crosses the room to sit across from the man and join him with her own noticeably ornate coffee cup belongs to Ms. Veronica Gray (Morgan Boss-Maltais, who indie horror fans may recognize from the 2021 horror short HUFF).

Boss-Maltais commands the role like a boss, with her haunted look and haunting looks, making every moment she is on the screen easy to watch, regardless of what’s going on around her.

We quickly learn that the caffeine is needed in order for the man, Charles Bloom (Dave McClain, who played the cult leader in last year’s shocker Those Who Call, helmed by the same writer/director, Anubys Lopez), to stay awake while being the sole caregiver for his mother. She suffers from dementia which has progressed to the point that he is desperate for help.

McClain could be compared to a cross between Grizzly Adams and Bela Lugosi (you’re welcome for that image).

Soon after a hundred-dollar bill is slid across the table, Veronica reluctantly accepts the job and hops into Bloom’s truck after calling Mom to let her know she’ll be busy for a while.

The opening credits materialize in a 1940s font over a panoramic view of dusty cattle ranches and lost highways as Caruso’s Avé Maria crackles and pops in all its timeless glory.

Following a vehicle down a dusty road from a bird’s-eye view may be a movie cliché, but something about the barren Texas landscape accompanied by such an old recording is bleak and unsettling.

As they arrive at the home where Veronica’s services will be required, the viewer is immediately thrust into the same territory as psychological horror greats like Get Out and The Skeleton Key.

The first person she meets is a gardener (Adonos Ringo) who appears to be so frightened for her that he accidentally snips his hand with the shears, dotting the ground with fresh symbolism.

Michael Gaffney and Kaizad Patel’s eerie score swells as Veronica’s employer casually ignores the injury, inviting the lovely young girl into his humble abode as if he doesn’t even notice the terrified laborer.

The interior of the house looms over its new house guest with mid-20th-Century decor that would make Donna Reed blush (were she not 37 years deceased). Vintage photographs are creepy by nature (especially postmortem daguerreotypes), so the fact that the protagonist doesn’t immediately turn tail and exit stage left as soon as she notices a faded family portrait with all the faces scratched off lends some credence to Richard Pryor’s assertion that you would never catch a brother in a haunted house long enough to film a movie about it ’cause they take such red flags more seriously than their white contemporaries.

The image fades with another soundtrack boost as Mrs. Bloom (Carla Kidd, TV’s Black Widow Murders) is wheeled into the room and starts channeling her best Vera Donovan from Stephen King’s Dolores Claiborne.

If the apparent lack of a sufficient age gap between Kidd and her on-screen “son” McClain seems off, don’t let it jar you too much, as it is later explained.

Armed with nothing but my knowledge of horror tropes and the first twelve minutes of this beautifully filmed, if not oddly familiar, movie, I let out a little critical sigh and settled back for another hour and twenty minutes of tense, folklore-driven American gothic.

Having mostly burned out on slashers, I am all about an excellent slow burn lately, and thankfully, Aged is a lot more burn than slow.

From the first awkward conversation Mrs. Bloom has with young Veronica at the breakfast table, I predicted the outcome. But I have had a soft spot in my heart for such tales since reading the short story Don’t Go into Baby’s Room in DJ Arneson and Tony Tallarico’s 1980 juvenile horror anthology, The Haunted Planet.

I found it fitting that this movie would borrow so heavily from the trope recently repopularized by Get Out since Tallarico is probably most famous for being the creator of Lobo, the first black hero in comics to be featured in his own title.

As I watched Charles remind Veronica that her cell phone is useless on account of their being in the middle of nowhere, I sighed again, but I was determined to give Aged the benefit of the doubt and attributed the heavy-handedness to the director being so fresh.

With only two films to his credit listed on IMDb, Anubys Lopez may still be learning his craft, but he has already made an indelible mark on the Texas indie horror scene.

My patience was rewarded with a standard horror movie bathing moment. As Veronica obliviously reclines in her bubble bath before retiring for the evening, the viewer is treated to more 1920s Victrola mood music and a few quick shots of the home’s interior — which is just as much a character as any of the roles introduced, thus far — with its antique furniture, weathered trim, gaudy wallpaper, and knickknacks oozing Americana.

Cut to a mysterious young woman smiling beatifically over Veronica as she sleeps uneasily through the late-night intrusion.

The next morning, our heroine looks out the window and spies the gardener from yesterday’s arrival looking at her from the shrubbery before she goes outside to offer him a glass of water. He promptly informs her that she’s all his employers have been talking about for months and that they have, in fact, been looking for her for a very long time. Nothing creepy about that at all.

He adds that although he’s never actually been inside, he thinks there is something strange going on in the house, and he would leave soon if he were her — that there were “others just like her”, and that she should ask Mrs. Blum about them if she wants to know more.

The death stare Charles gives him through a separate window, complete with a dissonant flourish from the score as Veronica goes back into the house with a confused look on her face, confirming that yes, we’ve probably seen this movie before.

But no, it’s not impossible to enjoy the buildup, even if we think we might know what’s coming.

The plot thickens as Mrs. Bloom starts to wax demented, claiming she can see someone named “Henry” (Kelly Kidd) laughing at her as she “packs to go off to college” before Veronica compassionately helps the confused old woman ease back into reality — a suspect reality, as we later see Henry in a conversation with Mrs. Bloom.

A few movie hours later, we are suddenly introduced to a strange woman (Bria D’Aguanno) who startles Veronica by showing up out of nowhere, explaining that she just let herself in because she is Mrs. Bloom’s granddaughter, “Emily”.

I was pleased to see the old body-swapping trope take an unexpected turn, and I grinned as Emily told Veronica she liked her dress (which was given to her by Mrs. Bloom). Veronica says for the second time, “How did you know my name?” before being summarily ignored by the exiting tween.

Veronica goes on a cell-signal-seeking nature walk amidst the twisted trees and sagebrush surroundings of the Bloom House just in time to catch someone who is far enough away that they may or may not be Mrs. Bloom eloping down the path dangerously far from her bedroom where she was last seen sleeping peacefully during Emily’s visit.

The apparition disappears around the corner for a moment, only to return a few seconds later and give Veronica chase, arms flailing in sync with the disturbing music that adds a layer of effectiveness to what is clearly Lopez’s wheelhouse: the classic jump scare.

There’s a tense exchange between Veronica and Mrs. Bloom, during which Veronica’s aged client threatens to fire her if she ever leaves the house again. At this point, I started to become more interested in whatever Mrs. Bloom had been scribbling in her journal since Veronica arrived. We are only given very brief flashes, a wise directorial decision that primes the imagination.

A little full moon here, a little blood magic there, and the spookiness culminates in a surreal sequence that sends the story spinning in a wildly different direction. 

Veronica finally starts to ask the right questions, but she gets no answers but plenty of gaslighting, attempting to convince her it’s all in her head.

A pivotal scene threatens to spoil a cool plot twist if you’re the analytical type. And some questionable decisions by Veronica might have you yelling at the screen in frustrated disbelief. Still, we horror fans understand that if horror movie characters made normal, wise decisions, there wouldn’t be much of a movie. So, we’re willing to forgive some serious lapses in judgment.

After some creative body horror, class-A gaslighting, and a timeline plot twist, mysteries are revealed, and Aged reaches its terrifying, bloody conclusion.

Bloody hand prints, forbidden diaries (ah, THAT’S what Mrs. Bloom has been up to), ghostly phone calls, a disappearing corpse, and a few more jump scares usher the viewer towards the predictable yet satisfying climax that, despite a few red herrings, turns out to be exactly what you thought it would. But that doesn’t make the journey any less enjoyable.

The end credits start rolling, and I am suddenly in heaven as my favorite old-time crooner, the man who was once hailed as the world’s greatest entertainer, Al Jolson, warbles his way through the timeless standard April Showers in his own eclectic style that fits perfectly with the overarching theme of the movie.

And I am reminded that there really is nothing scary about aging itself, only the disproportionate amount of importance we place on youth as if age and death aren’t coming for us all.

The real horror of Aged is in the allure of youth, tempting us to maintain and reclaim it at the expense of innocence.

With two fine genre films now under his belt, I anticipate a long and successful career ahead of Mr. Lopez.

I am glad Lopez rekindled so many fond memories of scary stories from my childhood and young adulthood with this somewhat flawed but competently-wrought indie gem, which I am proud to add to my collection of go-to American gothic horror films. 

Overall Rating (Out of 5 Butterflies): 4

AGED is released on digital platforms on June 15.

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