While not a negative, the most distracting thing about co-writers and co-directors Kaiser Whitmire and Shannon Houchins’ Howard’s Mill was how much I kept questioning if this was an actual documentary and not some found-footage horror/thriller akin to The Blair Witch Project. Well, it’s very real.
The titular Howard’s Mill is located in Springfield, Tennessee. The location is an abandoned farm with a sizeable pond nearby. According to the prologue, the filmmakers planned on telling the harrowing story of amateur treasure hunters Dwight and Emily Nixon. While hunting near the pond, Emily suddenly disappeared without a trace. The film was supposed to tell Dwight’s story and hopefully exonerate him.
It’s been months, and of course, the only suspect the police have for Emily’s disappearance is her husband, Dwight. It’s here where Whitmire and Houchins join the story as the police refuse to investigate anyone but Nixon. He wanted to show that the site had an infamous history of its own as it is the location of several disappearances over the decades.
In 1977, a young boy witnessed his migrant-worker family vanish while crossing the property. Two years later, the original owners’ daughter, Rebecca, disappeared, and two years later, their other daughter Glynnis also went missing. In 1994, Sarah Winston’s parents, while picnicking, shot a family video ending with Sarah running into the middle of a field and vanishing in an instant. Yes, we are shown the footage.
“…the location of several disappearances over the decades.”
As documentarians investigate the disappearances, they uncover the presence of the farm’s creepy neighbor Wayne Richie. Wayne was the local loner raised by an abusive family. Do we have a new suspect in the case? Before you know it, a body is found. Then out of nowhere, the story takes an incredible supernatural twist.
Howard’s Mill is one of those documentaries that started in production as a typical investigatory story and quickly turns weird… creepy weird. The real attraction comes in the filmmakers’ decision to change the entire tone of the movie, giving it that over-the-top ghosthunters treatment. From start to finish, I was always on edge. It’s incredible how much music and editing can turn any film into a thriller. It’s like those YouTube videos where you add the Benny Hill chase music over car chase footage.
The supernatural tone was vital as the third act revelations come to light. You need to see the movie because this is crazy sh!t. Look, I’m pretty skeptical when it comes to this supernatural stuff, and one might question the tonal shift, but I love Whitmire and Houchins’ presentation. They had an odd story on their hands, and the filmmakers leaned into it hard. I’m not exactly sure what the final post-credits segment was, but I’m still thinking about it.
Howard’s Mill straddles that line between reality and the absurd, and maybe they’re overselling the supernatural a bit. I think the most cynical viewers might have a problem with how the story is being sold and accuse it of sensationalism. That said, I love this film for those reasons. It’s a reminder of one of my favorite TV shows from the past, In Search Of… and I was fully engaged from beginning to end and, quite frankly, creeped out. It may not work for all, but it worked for me.
"…out of nowhere, the story takes an incredible supernatural twist."