Horror stories are as much tales to titillate as they are to teach lessons. The fairytales of today — Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Hansel and Gretel — are far gentler than when they arose to popularity as they tended to feature quite a bit of gruesome violence. They were horrific in their lessons of how to behave, how to act, and what not to do. Today’s horror stories carry on many of these lessons, even when the bad guys get away to continue their cruelty (Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, and to some degree, Ghostface). Of all the lessons one can learn from these stories, the primary one is simple: do not go to remote locations. That’s it. If you want to live, don’t go somewhere remote. Alien (1979): remote. The Shining (1980): remote. The Evil Dead (1981): remote. The Thing (1982): you guessed it, remote. Bringing their spin on the “terror in a remote location” tale is director Ariel Vida (Vide Noir) with Trim Season, having its world premiere during The Overlook Film Festival 2023. It’s a film set in the Emerald Triangle within Northern California that seeks to cast a supernatural spell on audiences. Despite strong pacing and well-developed characters, there’s something missing from the recipe that doesn’t quite give you the mellow buzz you seek.
Recently jobless and out of options, Emma (Bethlehem Million) accepts a seasonal position as a marijuana trimmer as the opportunity allows her to make enough money to cover her debts and, perhaps, create some perspective. She’s joined by close friend Julia (Alex Essoe) and three other individuals they meet at a pick-up spot — Harriet, Lex, and Dusty (Ally Ioannides, Juliette Kenn De Balinthazy, and Bex Taylor-Klaus respectively) — before making the journey to the distant farm run by Mona (Jane Badler) and her two sons. At first, things start out well enough, but the further into the two-week stay they go, the stranger things become until it’s too late to turn back.
The script from David Blair (The Triangle) knows what kind of story it’s telling, which is the wisest thing going for it. It’s not that Trim Season is self-aware, not in a meta way, so much as the characters aren’t dumb and there’s a reasoning for the ways things go. Of the four picked-up to trim, Emma is the only Black individual among them, so the idea of getting into a stranger’s car, traveling to an unknown location, and being stuck there for two weeks, desperate as she is, throws a lot of red flags. With the exception of Julia, the others have some experience so there’s less tension to be had with them, enabling a certain amount of calm in an otherwise less ideal circumstance. It also speaks to the depths of Emma’s desperation that she’s willing to forgo so much of her own personal safety and autonomy for the *chance* of making enough money to square herself a bit. Emma is the film’s way into the entire situation, but she also serves as the voice of reason, even as the script balances her own journey of self-actualization and confidence. Million (Sick) makes great use of what’s on the page, making Emma seem as relatable to anyone else well before being placed in an extreme situation. Million conveys the insecurity and hesitancy of someone unsure of their place in the world, along with the inner strength of someone who knows their heart with delicacy and grace. We believe very much in Emma’s sincerity, which enables what could otherwise be considered a whining or immature disposition to fall by the wayside.
Here’s the thing, though, what the script seeks to do, and Vida along with it, is tell a story that’s the typical coming-into-their-own final girl story with a metaphysical/religious bend. This creates some of the dissonance within the film between what it does concretely and effectively versus the abstract that weakens the whole. The cold open seems to suggest that it takes place sometime before the events of the film proper and we’re given enough on screen to back this notion while confirming that something nefarious is going on, laying the groundwork for the tiny tidbits fed to the audience via the new crop of trimmers and what they see and experience on Mona’s farm. This establishes a lore well before anything is explained, a smart move as laying the foundation of mystery enables the inevitable collision between what Emma thinks is happening and what is actually happening occurs. Given that Vida worked on The Endless (2017), She Dies Tomorrow (2020), and Something in the Dirt (2022) as a production designer suggests that they have an eye for detail, and what we see initially is as intentional as we think. Then, when we get answers, like them or not, they’ve all been baked into the script since the start. The problem that one may have is that the execution of the “why” is not as clear as it could be, enabling the more esoteric and interesting aspects to come across as less well thought out.
Rather than tease the audience into thinking that things aren’t awry or off too soon via misdirects, the characterizations of Mona and her people, as well as the actors’ performances, communicate that things aren’t right nearly from the jump. It’s in the physical delivery of someone that just won’t slow down or the way a look lingers too long between people. It’s not just the overt aggression from the security team onto the new team of trimmers, it’s the slightly sinister welcome and slow, deliberate movements from Badler (Surrogate) as Mona. There’s a profound sense that danger is here and not just because the work being done on the property is of high value. With this in place, the “why” is teased out so that when first blood is drawn, it feels less like another cog in the horror wheel and more like a noted inevitability. However, as more explanation is provided, and the odd flash of an image is offered, one begins to reach out desperately to understand the significance and comes up dry. There’s a repeated presentation of a painting that could be interpreted as a signifier of an unhealthy relationship between Mona and her two sons, or it could be a reference to the passing of time. Mona does repeatedly comment on the trimmers’ youthfulness, even going so far as to brandish the old quote “youth is wasted on the young” while chatting with Emma. In concert, there’s a sense that this is all about maintaining youth or vitality, an exploration of the lengths to which one may go to stay prominent and powerful; yet the trajectory of Emma’s arc doesn’t fall in line as a foil. So when given a reasoning, when one considers the trials Emma and her fellows endure, the “why” falls apart with the evidence provided. Certainly, one could guess, but that would require potentially abandoning what the audience is given in favor of what we want to have received. Instead, we find ourselves wondering about purpose and intention instead of ruminating on the impressive VFX and prosthetic work that bring to bear the gnarly bits horror fans crave.
One might presume that Trim Season is best enjoyed inebriated due to the fact that the bulk of the film takes place on a marijuana farm. The herb is generally either treated as something that’s going to destroy the fabric of society (Reefer Madness) or just make you hungry (Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle). Instead, Trim Season follows the legacy of similar outlaw-like substances (think: moonshine) in that the yield is large and profits are high, therefore secrecy and security are paramount. Having grown up just outside Franklin County, Virginia, the behavior Mona exerts is less terrifying as it is disquieting, Badler able to bring forth the stature of a stately individual with few cares yet just as willing to kill a person if it takes care of a threat to their person or stock. With this in mind, tread lightly should you decide to light up or take an edible beforehand. It’s not that the film would induce a bad trip, it’s just not the kind of film which is enhanced by additional distraction.
Screened during The Overlook Film Festival 2023.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.