There’s a kind of slow, grand stillness to the American Midwest. It feels like a land forgotten. Something about the seemingly endless stretches of farmland, highways, and grey skies make most of Ohio feel almost post-apocalyptic. It has it’s three cities (Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati), but in between there’s an uncharted quality to the state. When an artist chooses to make a meal of this lost Midwest, you get the prose of Donald Ray Pollock, the music of Dwight Yokam, and the 2015 indie horror gem Union Furnace.
Directed by Nicholas Bushman and co-written by Bushman and Mike Dwyer, Union Furnace feels like a darkly personal film. The plot follows a destitute car thief named Cody (played by Mike Dwyer). It is clear that Cody needs a money miracle to pay off massive gambling debts. That miracle seems to come in the form of a charming blonde man (played by Seth Hammon), and a mysterious opportunity.
Cody agrees to the blonde man’s terms, and after a phone call in the middle of the night, he leaves his stripper girlfriend and the games begin.
He wakes, tied up, facing a room full of bizarre masked men and women, with eight strangers (one of whom is horror movie legend Keith Goddamned David!) tied up next to him. The blonde man now wears an elaborate lion mask and introduces a night of games for the eight “contestants” where each round means more money, more danger, and one contestant fewer.
Given the auteur nature of a movie of such a singular vision, and the gritty independent aesthetic of the film, I can’t help but see a metaphor in the film for filmmaking itself. The film begins with a church, and Cody stealing a car from its parking lot. Every independent film has to begin with faith, and a willingness to break some rules. We learn that Cody is desperate because of gambling debts, and isn’t every attempt as a filmmaker a kind of gamble, you certainly have to borrow quite a bit of money, and not always from the best people. The bizarre series of games and tests mandated by anonymous wealthy investors sounds like a brutal studio system that wants its up-and-comers jumping through hoops before they get a check.
The film is full of real and honest characters, even the cartoonishly evil “Lion,” as the blonde man comes to be called, takes off his mask and speaks to Cody like a man who truly knows these morbid games, possibly from both sides. When Cody asks, “How the hell do I get your job?” You see a genuine pain behind Lion’s smile-and-chuckle response.
The film feels so grounded because Bushman and Dwyer are following the best advice for indie filmmakers: they’re working with what they know. Both born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, the men behind Union Furnace know how to wield the setting, with its vast grey skies and colorless fields, like a machete. They write their characters like deep, lasting, living portraits of desperation. Even the tertiary characters in the setup like the chop shop owner, “Parts Punk,” (David Hayward) and Cody’s girlfriend, Dreama, (Misa Farslow) build the world of the film into a living, breathing, wounded thing.
And that world is Ohio, through and through. The same way Texas Chainsaw Massacre introduced the world to the grim bones of a Texas that America forgot, Union Furnace (named after an actual Ohio township) speaks to the rich, often unnoticed world tucked into the “flyover states.” I hope to see more from Bushman and Dwyer, and I hope to see more indie horror as sharp and brutally human as Union Furnace.
** Union Furnace is available for rent and purchase from Vimeo on Demand, watch it here: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/unionfurnace/133407125 **