Courtesy Panic Fest
Often when a person develops a horrible or even fatal sickness, people will personify the disease. As if giving the illness some kind of agency will make the idea of a failing body easier to comprehend. Loved ones (or even strangers) use aggressive terms when describing cancer, saying the patient can beat or defeat the attacking cells. They liken the medical process to a battle where the person can either triumphantly win or sadly lose. Yet, many believe using a metaphor to explain an illness can be harmful to those suffering from a disorder or disease because it weakens the seriousness of the illness. However, Daniel Slottje’s short THE ROTTING OF CASEY CULPEPPER approaches the technique of combining illness and metaphor in a respectful way and, at the same time, makes for strong commentary on approaches to discussing the emotional trauma which comes with a physical illness.

Casey Culpepper (Lilliana Ketchman) is a young girl who lives with her father (Slottje) and within a minute of the film, the audience understands the pair have a loving relationship. At first glance, the father demonstrates some unhealthy vices as he sits with a table full of scratch-offs and a mouth full of dip. An outsider might frown at the father’s lifestyle, but any judgment quickly disappears when we realize the doe-eyed little girl is sick. Very sick. The lottery tickets we previously dismissed as wastes of money actually represent hope, as the father desperately searches for anything to cover medical expenses. And the chew indicates he most likely used to smoke but had to quit suddenly to protect his daughter’s already fragile body.

In such a short time, Slottje injects us with so much unease and dread as we watch little Casey Culpepper grow sicker and sicker, and her poor father must watch her suffer. And, as much as the father tries to keep Casey well-rooted in childhood through his playful antics and goofy demeanor, he does not realize his little girl has to grow up too quickly. In fact, Casey makes every attempt she can to protect her father. In a bathroom shaving scene, we see the reversal of roles, as the father shaves his head in a preemptive act of solidarity with his sick child, but Casey stands by and pretends to shave off a beard and mustache. Almost as if the father is displaying the illness, while Casey performs daily maintenance as if she is preparing herself for a day of work to support the family.

Horror can sometimes be found in monsters, the dark, and the uncomfortable combination of the two. But real stomach-turning terror comes from something you can’t see. Real fear comes from the unspeakable rotting which sometimes occurs inside of people. And sometimes cruelly happens inside of children. When a child receives tickets to a baseball game, the gift should be welcomed with loud cheers of excitement, not quiet contemplations of them wondering if they will live long enough to attend the game.

The director uses monstrous imagery as a means to describe the isolation, uncertainty, and fear which comes from fatal diseases. Happy homes become sick rooms, which pulls the horror out of the corners and places it right in the middle of our lives. The dark visuals of THE ROTTING OF CASEY CULPEPPER make the story not so much appear in front of you but peek out from the shadows as we get glimpses of the monster that stalks the Culpepper family. Visually, Slottje creates an impressive monster through the use of practical effects, but the real terror comes from the perspective of the father. No matter how much he cares for his little girl or how many sacrifices he makes, he still remains helpless to the monster set on destroying his daughter.

Running at a little over sixteen minutes, the narrative, the effects, and the actors will pull you into a dark world. Ketchman and Slottje play a believable father and daughter team and will make you root for this small family unit as they appear physically and emotionally isolated from the rest of the world. The doting performance of Slottje places you in the role of the father. While the strong and physical contributions from Ketchman will make you proud of every child who had to endure such a painful and lonely existence. And even though some battles can be won, a permanent victory is never promised. Unfortunately, childhood diseases never leave quickly and many times the monster never fully goes away.

THE ROTTING OF CASEY CULPEPPER played as a part of Short Block # 1 at Panic Fest 2022.

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