Ohio, 1887. A multiracial family is devastated by a mysterious sickness, and 11 year old Rhett must fight through an otherworldly dreamscape to protect them.
After Rhett, a young Black girl, jokingly curses her little brother Ben, the boy has a dangerous seizure. They both begin having visions of horned creatures and a glowing cup, from which they drink. As Ben grows sick, their mother, Antonia, cares for him, while at the same time fending off pressure from a railroad company to sell her land. Their white stepfather, an accomplished doctor, believes that Ben has cholera, and he quarantines the house, but after Ben’s death, the illness spreads to Rhett.
The creatures won’t leave Rhett alone. They are appearing in the house now, leaving scratches along the wallpaper, telling her not to drink from the cup in her dreams. Rhett confesses her nightmarish visions to her mother, who cautions Rhett not to listen to the voices: Mental health issues run in the family, she says, and her own mother ended up in an asylum.
But Rhett gets sicker. At last, in a psychedelic fever dream, she listens to the creatures and refuses to drink from the otherworldly cup. She throws up a mass of poison and begins to recover; now, however, her mother is sick. Her stepfather takes her under his wing and begins teaching her medicine.
As they care for Antonia, the two grow closer, until one day a haggard railroad worker accosts Rhett in her back yard and warns her not to trust the doctor. Rhett banishes this encounter from her mind, but her suspicions are raised when she finds clues that the doctor has been meeting with the railroad company. Following a hunch, she uncovers lockets of other Black women hidden in the doctor’s study. The railroad worker tells her that her stepfather is a conman who has been marrying and murdering Black women to gain their property.
Before Rhett can set a plan in motion, the doctor discovers her conversation and drags her to his study to administer more “medicine”. With the help of the creatures in her fever dreams she rejects the poison and escapes, but nobody in the town believes her story. Returning to the house to gather evidence, Rhett is captured by the doctor, who prepares to kill her outright. At the last second, she allows the supernatural creatures to reach out to her, pulling them into the real world to protect herself.
The following morning, authorities drag out the remains of the doctor, who seems to have been killed by a pack of wolves. Tearfully Antonia wonders what they’ll do now. Rhett, however, is strangely optimistic.
I graduated with honors from in screenwriting from Brown University, and I’ve been writing and directing films for 6 years now. I’m a queer, neurodivergent filmmaker, and challenging the concept of “objective reality”, and its underpinnings in privileged intellectualism, is very important to me.
How do we trust people whose perceptions are different from ours? Even today, the perceptions of certain demographics (white, rich, male, cis, straight, adult) are, often unconsciously, trusted more than others (Black, poor, female, trans, queer, child).
I wanted to pit these forces against each other and create a story where Rhett, the protagonist, would doubt her own experiences. Considering that her family has suffered for their feelings and perceptions for generations, this doubt is very understandable. The 19th century was not kind to people who weren’t white men.
From the 21st century, the 1880s are fascinating years to look back on. Rapidly shifting beliefs - emancipation, interracial marriage, medicine, psychiatry, the role of women in politics - meant that acceptable beliefs and practices were drastically different from just a few decades earlier. Not unlike today, it was a time when norms were evolving at a breakneck pace, and white men of that era are even now held up as champions of social progress.
In “Henrietta”, Dr. James Carlin, Rhett’s stepfather, is a benevolent and progressive figure, in addition to being a monster. He believes in interracial marriage, and most likely women’s suffrage and other hot button issues of his day. He listens to Rhett. He’s one of the good ones. This wasn’t just for dramatic effect - the more likeable he is, the more devastating his turn becomes - but to explore the reality of white masculinity even among the “champions”.
After all, human nature is not all good, and those with power will always take what their power lets them take, regardless of their beliefs; for the last five hundred years, or more, those people have been white men. Because of the terrible things he does to his family, Carlin seems like a “psychopath” (to use yet more pseudo-scientific terminology), but aren’t we still inundated with stories of white men who do whatever they can get away with?
In so many ways, the late 19th century reflects our society today. They too experienced almost unbelievable social and technological progress. They too believed they were at the cutting edge of science and knew all there was to know. Of course, they still bled and leeched people, and threw the neuroatypical into insane asylums, and practiced phrenology and eugenics and unfettered free market capitalism, and believed that women didn’t have sexual feelings.
It’s easy to criticise people of that era for being backwards, then turn around and continue living our lives, content that we are the pinnacle of objective intellectualism. But truth and reality are not absolute. In the 1880s, the keepers of truth were white men. Today is no different. Perhaps a hundred and thirty years from now, future generations will look back on us and shake their heads. We should be so lucky.