Change can slip quietly into our lives, but there always comes a point when the past and present collide, presenting us with the opportunity to influence the future and set a course of our own choosing. Writer/director Annalise Lockhart reflects on that power for change in her new live-action short film, Inheritance (2021).
In the solitude of rural Vermont, Norra (Victoria A. Villier) celebrates her 25th birthday with her family, receiving the deed to their small cabin as a gift from her father. With the onset of this milestone, Norra comes to the disturbing revelation that ever watchful spirits haunt their property, lingering among the surrounding trees. Even more unsettling is the fact that both her brother Tucker (DeLeon Dallas), and her father Jeffrey (Ron Brice) have known about this for some time…
Gina Freitag: First of all, Annalise, congratulations! This is such a moving film, not to mention atmospheric and wonderfully pensive. I especially enjoyed the interplay of technology and nature; the film’s setting really lent itself well to the story. Can you share your thoughts about the relationship between those two aspects?
Annalise Lockhart: Thank you so much! I love that a film which straddles three genres—horror, science fiction, and family drama—resonates with people. I grew up in New York and spent summers in Vermont, so I was always fascinated with the natural world, especially our relationship to it. The family in the film have this deep respect for the land and the trees that are responsible for their livelihood. I love the idea of the solution to their haunting coming from repurposing technology they already use, in a way that doesn’t disrupt the land. The ghosts, on the other hand, come from a darker, deeper place in the earth—they represent the remnants of the earliest colonizers, who had their own ideas of land ownership.
GF: Did you turn down any unusual avenues in doing research or prep for the film?
AL: <laughs> I definitely did a lot of research about invisibility technologies, and research on trees. Trees actually can produce electricity, that is a fact. It was important to me to have some of the science behind Tucker’s invention rooted in the real world.
GF: Between the technological elements and the supernatural, you lean quite a bit into the melding of horror and sci-fi genres. What key influences helped to shape Inheritance in a broader sense, and in terms of specifically Afro-Futurist inspirations?
AL: Science-fiction films—E.T., Contact, Children of Men—have for sure shaped the film and what we wanted to make, specifically because I wanted Inheritance to be rooted in realism. The science-fiction elements are intended to blend into the natural surroundings in a sense.
In terms of specifically Afro-Futurist inspirations, I have been heavily influenced by Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delany. I think the best science fiction asks a question, and doesn’t wrap things up neatly—because the world doesn’t work that way.
GF: And those lingering questions are certainly what haunt us long after the movie ends. Speaking of haunting, let’s talk about those ghosts: Norra and her family are haunted by insidious, angry white spirits that lurk around the property. From their glowing eyes and ashen pallor, to the ethereal waves that radiate from their forms…did this depiction differ from how you originally visualized them? If so, how did that vision evolve?
AL: The depiction of the ghosts definitely evolved over time. Initially, I wanted it to be a mystery whether they were human or something else. That’s why we slowly get closer to them each successive time we see them. I wanted to make it clear that they come from this twisted legacy of the land, so they have dirt and soil all over their clothes, twigs and leaves in their hair, as if they actually came out of the earth itself. The glowing red eyes and distorted faces reflect their purpose: the power of their gaze alone is what disturbs the family so much. I really enjoyed the process of creating their look with Shannon White, our makeup artist, and Nell Simon, our costume designer. I’m sure there will be more monsters in my future!
GF: Their gaze is unsettling for sure. On a further note about visualization, ‘visibility’ is a significant concept in this film in terms of how we literally see the characters (through windows and between the vertical line of the trees in the surrounding woods). There’s the picture frame that Norra intends to purchase to display their property deed. And there’s also a strategic sense of framing for the family that at times places the audience in the POV of the ghost.
But the most striking sense of visibility is that Norra, Tucker, and Jeffrey have to essentially be invisible to exist in peace. In effect, a sense of liberation is only possible by finding a way to live with the past. What are your reflections on this? And were there other ways that you saw this film playing out?
AL: Yes! I am so happy the framing came through. Charlotte Hornsby (DP) and I tried to intensify the feeling of being watched and boxed in whenever possible. The house where we filmed is actually on a road, but you never see it. Whenever the house is on camera, it’s surrounded by trees on every side. We almost never see open sky in the film.
So yes—freedom for the family exists in a life outside of visibility entirely. It’s not the best solution; in fact the family does all this work to appease the ghosts, but it is only one mode of survival. To me, it is powerful to control when and how you are perceived. The family holds the cards now. The audience loses access to the family too, so we can’t see where they’re headed next.
GF: The fact that the family is granted agency beyond our reach fits in nicely with the inversion or reclaiming of the notion of “ownership”, initially laid out by the property deed that Jeffrey gifts to his two children. Can you speak to this a bit more?
AL: Land ownership and intergenerational wealth have been elusive to African Americans, for too many reasons to count. It may seem basic, but it was important for me to show that this family owned their house. Jeffrey knew, deep down, that Norra would eventually start seeing the ghosts too when she was old enough, but I think he thought, “if we all own the house, we’re taking a stand, and emphatically announcing our right to be here.”
I also intended to reflect on the fact that often when things are passed down, it is after someone has passed away. I think we should normalize co-ownership in life.
GF: You encapsulate these sensibilities really thoughtfully. I’m curious: what was the most daunting part of the overall film to capture?
AL: Honestly, one of the hardest parts to capture and wrap my head around is the scene where Norra is at work. We had some trouble with the original location: it was meant to be at a general store. The current managers of the store were concerned about having evil spirits or anything related to the occult near the store, but were perfectly happy for us to film there if we left those parts out! The scene in the film was through some re-writing and lucky location scouting at the Krueger-Norton Sugarhouse.
The point of the scene is to show that the only people affected are the family, and Norra’s friend and co-worker is totally oblivious to her emotional state. Working through Norra’s inner emotional state, and how that would progressively change and worsen, felt daunting. I’m super happy with how it worked out in the end.
GF: And that sense of subjectivity is what really enhances the contemplative quality of the film. What were the other major take-aways that stuck with you making this film?
AL: I was so lucky to have collaborators who really wanted to dive deep with me. That made a huge difference with this being my first short. Charlotte Hornsby (DP) and April Lasky (production designer) traveled up to Shrewsbury with me to scout in advance, and we just really took our time. The week leading up to shooting, April lived in the cabin, so she could really get a sense of the space and make the design changes that really breathed this family’s life into the space.
GF: It clearly pays off to put that extra work into the details, especially when you have a solid team. Can you give us any hints about your upcoming projects?
AL: I’m developing a feature with some of the themes explored in Inheritance as a jumping off point. And I have another short coming up soon—science-fiction, as well!
GF: Not going to lie, I’m super keen to see both already. While we wait for those to come to fruition, what genre films might you recommend fans of Inheritance watch after? Or what do you find yourself recommending the most to others right now?
AL: I find myself recommending anything where the film keeps you guessing. I love suspense, not knowing where the narrative will take me. Any film where someone says, “I don’t even want to tell you what it’s about!” That’s what’s worth recommending.
GF: Anatomy of a Scream seconds that—nothing better than a film that lingers on your mind.
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Thankfully, Inheritance is creeping its way through the festival circuit and will be more publicly available soon. It can be seen next at BlackStar Film Festival on August 5th – 6th, and more to follow!