Nicole Groton’s Darkness in Tenement 45 is a patient small-scale horror story, a coming-of-age Twilight Zone about the deterioration of social relationships held in close quarters for an extended period of time. Sound familiar to something you’ve experienced recently?

Joanna (Nicole Tompkins) is trapped in a tenement building after a bio-weapon assault on the city. Her overbearing Aunt Martha (Casey Kramer) rules the roost, with other multi-generational families trapped alongside them. They subside on what little food can be scavenged from the presumably plague-ridden city beyond their barricaded doors. Occasionally one of their number — usually an adult — leaves for supplies. They don’t always return, and for every friend lost the tension inside the tenement grows.

Initially the movie has a 1950s retro feel to it and, as a small-budget quarantine horror story, largely occurs within a limited number of spaces. Groton uses the close-quarters “no place to hide” aspect of her story well. The performances sell the interpersonal, nerve-searing lack of space. It’s all so intimate that when Joanna’s inner darkness begins to express itself, things feel off the rails in just the right way.

Darkness in Tenement 45 feels particularly relevant now, as everyone is more or less stuck inside to avoid other people as best we can … and slowly going a little nuts because of it. Of course the story takes another, more sensational direction as secrets eventually surface and blood is spilled. Horror is a genre that works well at any budget, but feature-length films sometimes face an uphill battle of mixing dramatic build with graphic payoff while keeping the experience tonally consistent. This one meets the task superbly, and I was really pleased Midwest Film Journal could bring this title to the Heartland Film Festival audience for this year’s Heartland Horror programming block.

The 29th Annual Heartland Festival will be held October 8-18, 2020, with both virtual and drive-in screening options. Check out the official website for screening times and ticket information.