The white, lower-class, upstate–New York dead end of Mohawk Valley is surely not the milieu metal front man Al Jourgensen had in mind when he wrote the goth call to arms "(Everyday Is) Halloween." But Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri's document of a year in the lives of Mosher's extended valley family calls to mind the Ministry hit nonetheless. October Country follows four generations of Moshers from one October 31 to the next, and, in between days of the dead, the spooks linger. Halloween itself is a Mosher obsession, a leveler across generations, and the only opportunity all year to take back the night from the family ghosts.
Inspired by Mosher's writing and photography, and shot by Palmieri, whose background is in directing music videos for the likes of Beck and the Foo Fighters, October Country is best understood as a work of creative nonfiction. The directors employ art-film techniques to aestheticize a swamp of big issues — the military, poverty, madness, family planning, spousal and child abuse — and give a family's (and America's) angst a clear voice and seductive form without passing judgment.
A munitions factory — staffed by posttraumatic vets like family patriarch Don — is all that keeps the town alive. It's a place where women are attracted to monster men who impregnate, beat and then leave them. Unable to learn from the past or break through to the future, the Moshers live in a zombie state of stasis. No wonder one member of the family claims to be "more afraid of the living than I am of the dead" — even as the Mosher women compulsively breed new life.
"You probably never should have had kids," says Dottie, the family's grande dame and supportive glue, to her daughter Donna. "Because you never got to enjoy your life."
Donna, who in the family pattern became a mom while still a kid herself, agrees but insists it isn't as bad as all that: "My kids are grown up, and now, I want to be happy."
Cut to Desi, Donna's loud, lonely, extraordinarily self-possessed preteen daughter. With Mom "being happy" and much of the rest of the family preoccupied with Desi's sister, Daneal — a welfare mom before she could legally drink — Desi amuses herself with video games. "There is a bright side to it," she says. "I watch less TV."
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A strain of suspense runs through October Country: Like the Mosher women before her, will Desi, on the verge of puberty, soon fall for the charms of dangerous, virile losers? Or, with her preternatural awareness that the choices made by her sister and mom qualify as "retarded," will she crack the family's tradition of arrested development?
Though Donal Mosher never appears on camera, his insider presence is always felt, as secret family horrors reveal themselves casually, organically, unvarnished in the telling. In standard documentary, there's often a just-perceptible force field keeping the subjects separate from the eye of the camera. In October Country, that border between watcher and watched doesn't exist — or, at least, isn't felt; the Moshers' rage and resignation seem as if they're coming through unfiltered. October Country delivers an unadulterated shot of the kind of poor, white American despair and frustration that most media treat as caricature.
Dense with painterly, almost abstract imagery rendered in vivid, lurid living color, and a wildly variant score composed by the filmmakers, October Country uses elliptical montages to emphasize the cyclical nature of the lives on-screen. If the film doesn't get anywhere narratively, that's just form following content: The Moshers themselves don't go anywhere, either.
OCTOBER COUNTRY: Directed by Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri. Featuring the Mosher family; 80 minutes. Not rated.