“Taffy Was Born,” the debut feature from David Giardina, is an extraordinary triumph of massive imagination on a minimum budget. Unlike too many Hollywood shock films which use heavy-handed effects and buckets of gore to unnerve audiences,this Connecticut-based production is a brilliantly eerie psychological horror drama that uses power of suggestion to build a growing sense of terror which stays with the viewer long after the closing credits have rolled.
The film charts the return of an unlikely prodigal to a very unlikely place: Verid Steele left his unnamed hometown at the age of seven, orphaned when his parents were killed in circumstances which were never quite clear. Verid’s tumultuous past (being raised in an orphanage, going to jail under bogus embezzlement charges, and being institutionalized for mental collapse) left him with no memory of his childhood.
His attempts to piece together his missing past are frustrated by his sole surviving relative, an aunt who is something of the town’s unofficial leader, and by a oleaginous reverend who offers Verid a job at a church bookstore while battering him with canned platitudes extolling the Christian faith. When Verid persists in finding the lost sections of his past, and then tries to conduct a history of the town, he finds himself shunned by the local residents. Even the local physician refuses to see him, which is critical since his anti-depressant medication has run out and he needs a new prescription.
The horror of “Taffy Was Born” comes in Verid’s growing paranoia about the community’s motives in stopping him from getting elusive answers. Scott Mitchell Kelly’s performance as Verid is a masterwork of slow-burning anxiety, with a nervous body language and a harrowing gaze which peers endlessly in search of answers and comfort.
Filmmaker Giardina cites Val Lewton as an influence, and that’s more than obvious: the film is packed with ominous shadows, disturbing sounds, tilted camera angles and the constant sense of indescribable doom waiting just around the corner. One can also find influences of “Carnival of Souls” and “Lemora, Lady Dracula” in the film’s debate between church-rooted good and unworldly evil, and a scene where Verid has a nervous collapse during a religious service owes more than a bit to Dreyer’s brilliant montages from “The Passion of Joan of Arc.”
“Taffy Was Born” is not perfect, by any stretch. The film’s big secret is tipped off too far in advance, and some of the acting (especially Madalyn McKay’s anvil-subtle aunt) doesn’t ring true. There is also an ominous police threat (Verid finds himself followed by a slow-moving squad car) which comes way too late in the movie to be effective â€“ this might have worked better if the threat of police violence was a running theme to add to Verid’s jitteriness (and it didn’t help that the town’s main cop is presented early as a dumb slob, thus diluting whatever threat his uniformed character might have).
But even beyond these flaws, “Taffy Was Born” is a highly effective achievement. And Giardina deserves endless kudos for the unlikely and enigmatic ending. There won’t be any spoilers here, but it is enough to say the filmmaker did not opt for the easy or obvious way out. In doing so, the viewer leaves the film as disturbed and broken as its warped protagonist, and that’s a brilliant touch by any standard.