“The Long Dark Trail” on Blu-ray at Amazon.com
Set in the idyllic boondocks of Northwestern Pennsylvania, two young brothers plan to escape the abusive grasp of an alcoholic father in search for a better life. Without a plan and nowhere to go, they go around the small town to collect money from the odd jobs the brothers worked in preparation for their abscond. While doing so, they come upon information about their mother, who abandoned them at a younger age, that sparks an desire to track her down in hopes that once she’ll lay eyes on them, she’ll want to rekindle the relationship with her two sons, but the trek deeper into the northern woods would be long and arduous through abandoned aqueducts, pine forests, and numinous burial stones belonging to an inimical cult of women controlled by a sadistic leader. It is the cult where their mother left them to reside and it is there where they are headed on their haunting journey in hopes for a better life.
Tackling impoverished, ill-treated youth haunted by their past and uncertain about their future, directors Kevin Ignatius and Nick Psinakis write-and-direct “The Long Dark Trail” as a tale of resiliency for two close brothers relying on each other to climb out from a pit of despair. Ignatius and Psinakis have collaborated previously together as writer-director and cowriter-actor in the misfortunate happenings comedy “My Best Friend’s Famous.” The 2022 drama-thriller marks the first feature film for the filmmakers who explore coming-of-age through trial by fire, or by the supernatural psychological manipulation of enchanted rocks and by the coarse portents of a blood sacrificing cult. Shot in Ignatius’s birthplace home of Warren County, PA, the two New York filmmakers shoot the low-budget venture under their independent production company, Four Eighteen Films, in association with El Jean Productions and with associate producers Michael Kraetzer (“The Slaughterhouse Killer”) and Nicholas Onetti (“Francesca”) of Black Mandala presenting the film.
“The Long Dark Trail’s” story follows two brothers played by real-life brothers, Brady and Carter O’Donnell, debuting in their first feature film. You can tell the brothers don’t have a ton of acting experience as their dialogue is very mechanical and their movements are bit stiff and hesitant, but since the narrative revolves around their characters, antisocially bred by the abusive father’s impropriety, being socially awkward on screen, even between each other despite their off-screen brotherhood, doesn’t necessarily feel far-fetched. “The Long Dark Trail” isn’t a heavy on the dialogue narrative, leaving much of the plot to unfold with the brothers’ wondering the forest grounds, natural and unnatural visual imagery, and the hypnotic folksy score. From start to finish, Brady and Carter carry the entire storyline from start-to-finish with intermittent spliced in scenes of hooded cult acolytes doing obscure and violent things in what looks to be the upstairs of a vacant barn or with the earlier scenes of the boys visiting and conversing with a purpose with Mr. Barrow as he rambles on about his veteran war stories while the boys take full advantage of his porch sitting to steal food form his cupboards; a role undertook by Kevin Ignatius’s father, Paul “Doc” Ignatius. The O’Donnell siblings shepherd much of the trail journey’s harrowing phantasms to the best of their ability but are also not limited to being just reactionary to the spooky woods. Practical makeup effects and some visual compositions are chartered for divisive inducing dynamics in order to drive a wedge between the brothers’ already contentiousness of wanting to traverse a dark corner of God’s country to see a mother that has already forsaken them once. Trina Campbell plays the indoctrinated mother now embedded into an outskirt cult led by Paul Psinakis’s version of a cult leader in Zeke. Psinakis has the maniacal wild eyes and brooding aura demarcating him as a clear cut bad guy with a bunch of vary-in-age women in tow but the cult is not very clearly defined as a whole or with a purpose and when the boys stumble into their isolated camp, near that aforesaid barn full of now chopped up body parts and hunting game skulls, the exposition to follow is not presented and the real sense of danger is only palpable from Zeke and Zeke alone.
While cast and story struggle to make ends meet with relative clarity, what Ignatius and Psinaki do really well in fashioning for effect is depicting the rural folk horror elements of vast natural landscapes that can turn looming and inescapable. As a resident of Southeastern Pennsylvania, convenience and concrete genetically makeup my quasi suburban-urban scenery, but I can appreciate the opposite side of the state with greenery up to your neck and beyond, the solitude of a different way of life, and how one could also appreciate how menacingly engulfing that can all feel as well. We’re also not completely stuck to the forest setting as the directors’ use riverbeds and lakeshores, sprawling grasslands, and the quaint town structures to enlarge the presence of a smaller shoot. Kevin Ignatius isn’t just the co-director of “The Long Dark Trail,” he’s also the film’s composer, another aspect of highlight, amongst other hat wearing titles. The catchy and mesmeric folk/bluegrass score is a real tribute to Ignatius’s musical background, having formed a band, Das Tapes, with brother Mark, by adding a layering combination of vocal sounds and banjo strumming. The latter banjo reminisces a little bit of “Deliverance” but with an elongated cadence integrated into the brothers’ long road tour, becoming a mainstay importance to the overall lingering feel of backwater chills. Where “The Long Dark Trail” fumbles is at the heart of project – the story. Never really tying the elements all together, the narrative often feels abstract and unhinged in a series of randomized events between the cursed rocks, vivid hallucinations, the boys’ trauma, the women stuck in a cult of a madman, and the message on blood ties. Was the father’s verbal and physical abuse the root cause of psychological and family brokenness? Are the brothers’ bond and endurance being tested on the trial trail toward their last form of hope, their abandoning mother? “The Long Dark Trail” is in a long, dark well of questions without any return of answers in a conclusion that can’t be roughly swallowed along the course of an exceptionally scored and formidable atmospheric thriller.
“The Long Dark Trail” path leads to at home Blu-ray release from Cleopatra Entertainment, the film banner of Cleopatra Records, and MVD Visual. The AVC encoded BD25 provides high-def resolution in 1080p of a widescreen presentation. The Cleopatra Blu-ray does not list the aspect ratio and IMDB.com lists the film at 2.39:1 which is accurate in accordance to the release. A combination blend of natural and lowkey lighting doesn’t appear to present too many issues with the format storage. A few signs of pixilation in deeper negative spaces cease to only a handful of decoded moments stark contrast. For a digital recorded film that’s churning out an average of 25Mpbs, par for the course for Hi-Def, the details don’t display to the fullest sharp potential but are certainly on the edge of so. You can get better visuals from the brightly lit of primarily color contrasting scenes for a film that’s remains in natural grading. Also not listed on the Blu-ray back cover is the audio specifications, but according to my player, the release comes with an English Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound and an English LPCM stereo. The five-point multi-channel audio mix studs the soundtrack with piquant notes, harmonies, and twanging banjo chords. Dialogue is pleasantly defined through the robust soundtrack and the ambience has a nice range of rustle and depth. I’m quite surprised by this Cleopatra Entertainment release that doesn’t come with a second disc, a CD, of the soundtrack, likely due to the score not produced by the parent record label. English subtitles are optionally available. The bonus features include blooper outtakes and behind the scenes footage, an image slideshow, and the original trailer. The back cover also notes an interview with the director, but what’s on the disc is a featurette surrounding artist R.L. Black’s graphic novel artwork for the film and for the forthcoming comic based off the film. There is no interview with the director. The rest of the bonus material rounds out with Cleopatra Entertainment trailers of “The Ghosts of Monday,” “Frost,” “A Taste of Blood,” “Escape from Area 51,” Baphomet,” and “Scavenger.” The film is housed in a traditional Blu-ray snapper with a rough and ready composite of a skull looking to swallow the bicycling boys on the dark path with a dark lit moon overhead; a missed opportunity in my opinion as there’s a better poster out there for the film, a more graphic poster, of one brother’s bloody head split down the middle and opening for the other’s brothers face to show. The Blu-ray is region free, unrated, and has well-paced runtime of 78-minutes. Likely not to please by or understand by most, “The Long Dark Trail’s” coming-of-age narrative wrangles with what’s most important for a folk horror film of its kind – either to be an apparatus for breathtaking countryside imagery or of trauma that is tense-laden and tearing families to pieces – and unfortunately, the feature couldn’t be both.