What Josiah Saw on Shudder premiered at Fantasia Fest almost a year ago and is now available on the streaming service. This Shudder original is a American Gothic Horror/Thriller film about a family that has deep seeded demons that need to be exorcised before they can sell their family estate to an oil company. Set in Texas and filmed on location in Oklahoma, the movie is a two hour bleak, slow-burn, character driven exploration into the effects of guilt and trauma and their impact on the lives of its characters through twenty-three more years of living. The color palate is drab, the soundtrack amplifies all the complex and horrifying revelations, and the lighting is dim, providing ominous shadow in which to hide.
I do not usually write spoiler reviews, but in this case, an examination on the meaning of the open-to-interpretation ending is warranted. If you are looking for a spoiler-free review, another 1428 Elm contributor has you covered, and if you keep reading, you have been warned: SPOILER ALERT!!
What Josiah Saw on Shudder is presented in three separate and distinct chapters
What Josiah Saw on Shudder is divided into three distinct chapters detailing the lives of each of the siblings fathered and tormented by Josiah (Robert Patrick), which clearly establishes Quentin Tarantino as one of director Vincent Grashaw’s creative influences. Each chapter has a very distinct style and story – the second chapter particularly reminiscent of Tarantino’s style.
The first chapter focuses on patriarch Josiah and his mentally-disabled son Tommy, and their life together at the run-down and notoriously haunted Graham farm where nothing has lived or grown other than them in decades. Josiah drinks morning, noon, and night, and dominates his son’s attention – always with him, always degrading him, until one night he has a vision. What did Josiah see? Some say Josiah saw God. Whether it was God, or the spirit of his dead wife Miriam who hung herself from the tree out front and was discovered by a young and impressionable Tommy, Josiah received the message that Miriam is burning in hellfire and they must all follow a righteous path in order to save her damned soul.
TRIGGER WARNING: SEXUAL ABUSE: Upon hearing Miriam’s message and at the direction of Josiah, Tommy starts cleaning up the farm and himself under the scrutiny of his father. There is a very unsettling scene which paints Josiah as a sexual abuser (in addition to the emotional abuse he already lays upon his son) driving the sin of masturbation out of his son in a graphic and disturbing way.
What Josiah Saw on Shudder’s middle chapter, Eli and the Gypsies, exhibits directorial influences like Tarantino and Lynch.
Chapter two of What Josiah Saw on Shudder opens in a meeting between the town sheriff and the oil executives who want to buy the Graham farm. The sheriff warns them that nothing good ever comes from that farm and the whole town knows that the farm is haunted, either by the spirit of Miriam (who was a church lady) or something darker. That doesn’t stop the oil company from sending offer letters to the farm owners. This is the catalyst for Tommy’s twin siblings Eli (an unrecognizable Nick Stahl) and Mary (Kelli Garner, who manages to transform dependent on angle and lighting) to return to the farm for the final chapter.
Eli’s chapter opens with him whoring himself out for some smack in his remote trailer location, where he is approached by his parole officer as he’s drinking his breakfast. A young girl has gone missing, and being a registered sex offender (she was 16 but looked 22!) in the area, he is a suspect. We also learn that Eli has a gambling problem and is into the town baddie Boone (Jake Weber) for a good chunk of change. He goes to settle his debt, and the bookie gives him a deal – go to the gypsy camp with the baddie’s two henchman on the outskirts of town and steal their gold, not only will his debt be paid, but he will be given a new start with no record.
At the gypsy camp, Eli meets a young gypsy who uses her feminine wiles to convince him to go to their ancient looking medium for a reading. The medium drugs Eli, and in the tea leaves reads his future far too deeply, predicting his impending sudden death, telling him he’s the reason his mother burns, and seeing they are there to rob the gypsies of their gold. A fight ensues where the henchman are killed, and Eli – using quick thinking, escapes – but not before snagging the chest of gold AND the kidnapped girl he finds at the camp. His escape is a heart stopping run to the car being chased by a horde of howling gypsies all the way back to town, where the sheriff tells him he better run, and he better run far.
Mary’s chapter in What Josiah Saw on Shudder is a discourse on depression
The first scene in Mary’s chapter shows Mary and her husband applying to adopt a baby as she had a tubal ligation at a young age, but now feels called to be a mother – but this also feels like a last ditch effort to make this second try with her husband (Tony Hale) work. She exhibits classic signs of depression and PTSD – inability to finish simple tasks (like grocery shopping), a fondness for sharp objects, terrifying nightmares (one in which she is stabbing herself repeatedly in the abdomen), and inconsistency with taking her meds.
Eli shows up one day, unannounced at Mary’s house to convince her to sign the papers to sell the farm. She says she needs to go back one last time. Eli and Mary have a touching scene where they comfort each other in front of the ancient repaired tractor before Eli heads out into the desolate farmland to dig up a grave. Mary’s husband calls her to tell her they’ve been approved for adoption, and then she sees him – Josiah standing outside by the tractor at the same time that Eli realizes that the grave, Josiah’s grave, is empty.
The horror and suspense amp up significantly in the final chapter of What Josiah Saw on Shudder
TRIGGER WARNING: INCEST AND CHILD ABUSE: As they sit at the table, Tommy tells Eli something he’s heard before – that their mother is burning in Hell, and they will join her unless they change their ways and live righteously. We find out that besides being slow, Tommy is a disturbed individual who has broken with reality. Tommy alleges that the twins incestuous relationship caused Mary to become pregnant, and Miriam to kill herself. Eli fires back explaining to Tommy that the baby was their father’s, but then they notice Tommy talking to someone who isn’t there – their dead father who they murdered twenty-three years ago.
Tommy accuses them of continuing to sin because he saw them together at a motel before they came to the farmhouse – also explained away rationally by the twins who then remind Tommy of the torturous abuse they all received as children at the hands of their father. Tommy reveals that he found the body of the baby the twins killed – and it’s locked in a trunk in the entryway with their father’s body. Tommy runs at Eli with an ax, killing him just as the gypsy medium predicted. Next goes Mary, stabbed in the stomach repeatedly exactly like she saw her nightmare. Josiah sits in his chair drinking his booze as a catatonic Tommy lays his head on the kitchen table, and the tree where Miriam hung herself burns.
Josiah has been preaching salvation, making Tommy believe that by living righteously they could all be saved – but truthfully he’s been posthumously leading them all to damnation, exacting his revenge. In the final scene we see the twins in the hotel room before they came to the house, proving Tommy was right about them all along.
What Josiah Saw on Shudder is an examination of how family-trauma and grief can follow you, making your life bleak and unlivable. It’s an examination of Christian guilt and religious trauma, angels and devils, forgiveness and damnation. It’s a commentary on the lengths people will go to just to survive – the relationship between Eli and Mary reminiscent of Flowers in the Attic.
What did Josiah see? Josiah saw his version of God, Josiah saw the spirit of his dead wife, Josiah saw his twins committing a carnal act, Josiah saw his daughter pregnant by either his son or himself, Josiah saw the blood of his children at his own hands, Josiah saw the inside of a grave dug for him by his children, Josiah saw revenge.
If you watched What Josiah Saw – did I get it right? Let me know in the comments!