Starting life as a school project while future DV horror honcho Mark Atkins was still a student at Rollins College in Florida's Winter Park, NIGHT ORCHID looks and sounds way more professional than its humble origins would suggest. This becomes all the more impressive considering the director turned to family and friends to fill out cast and crew. Lush cinematography by uncle Paul, already a veteran DoP of TV nature programs, proves a particular asset, mining the vast and deserted Florida landscapes for maximum mood. Acting by concise but accomplished cast doesn't count a single amateurish line reading among its ranks. For the record and by way of contrast, lest you should think I'm prone to excessive leniency, I watched this on a lazy afternoon DVD double bill with Spanish horror flick THE NUN, the filmmaking first from Jaume Balaguero's regular editor Luis de la Madrid, a highly atmospheric little number featuring some of the worst ensemble acting by an entire cast it has ever been my misfortune to endure. Remember, this comes from the guy who watches tons of porno, so there's a benchmark for you !
Apparently out of thin air, enigmatic drifter Clay Doyle (strikingly handsome Dale Paris, who had a small role in Troy Beyer's self-indulgent LET'S TALK ABOUT SEX) materializes in the minute hamlet of Ochopee, FL. Unbeknownst to the town's weary inhabitants who figure he's just been let out of jail, he actually harbors a decidedly darker secret which makes it nearly impossible for him to stay in one place too long. As he explains in film's opening voice-over, places "talk" to him as he bears involuntary witness to their invariably violent past through visions that arrive without warning. A wiz with motors, he finds a job at the garage run by burly Bert McCord (played by the director's dad, Thomas Radcliffe Atkins) as well as room and board with his new employer's longtime friend - and suggested erstwhile girlfriend
June Mabel, vividly portrayed by the physically imposing Mary Ellen
O'Brien, who doubled as movie's casting director. Life seems peacefully tranquil for a while. Meeting inscrutable Sarah Miller (the appealing Alyssa Simon who looks refreshingly like a real person rather than your typical airbrushed Hollywood hottie), a girl he swears he has seen before and who lives all by herself in a massive mansion overlooking an orange grove in the hills, Clay falls head over heels in love and the feeling appears blissfully mutual. Only problem is that Sarah actually went missing without trace over 30 years ago and her house has been deserted ever since ! Relying on his paranormal gift, Clay goes about attempting to solve the mystery.
Last line of my synopsis points towards flick's sore spot. Tailoring his otherwise astute script to fit a modest collection of characters he could find actors for, Atkins found himself ultimately left without much of a mystery. Considering plot's time frame, the culprit can only logically be one of three people so it's down to a process of elimination which plays out a tad too mechanically at the climax where the villain's revealed as literally the last one standing. Too tentatively paced at 105 minutes, the movie takes its merry time to get where it's going and could stand to lose half an hour or so. Still, whenever the film actually works, it sings. The mood of a small town where just about everyone has a skeleton in the closet is eloquently evoked through writing and acting, both of which are spot on most of the time. The Theater Department Chair at Rollins College, S. Joseph Nassif, provides a most memorable turn as Clay's jolly fellow mechanic Able who can turn nasty in a split second, drunkenly leering over the town's alleged scarlet woman, the wrongfully accused Lucy (admirably played by Rachel Carter who co-starred with scream queens Linnea Quigley and Brinke Stevens in Steve Latshaw's endearingly ropey slasher JACK-O), as he drives her home following a narrow escape from her abusive ex-boyfriend, the latter portrayed by a perfectly reprehensible Keith Hudson - from the Paris Hilton debacle PLEDGE THIS! - with the director himself supplying an amusing Hitchcock cameo as one of his idiot sidekicks. On the other hand, Larry Robinson - ironically by far the film's most experienced thespian with an extensive TV background stretching back all the way to the '50s - lets the side down slightly with an excessively emphatic performance as the mentally deficient black handyman Caleb Williams the townspeople seek to frame for Sarah's disappearance with unfortunate traces of Stepin Fetchit.
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