Union Furnace : Small-town secrets are the stuff of suburban nightmares, and the ones in Union Furnace are no exception. The indie horror, directed by Nicholas Bushman, focuses on a con man from a rural Ohio township who gets offered the chance to receive a large sum of money from a mysterious stranger. The catch is that he must participate in a deadly game involving several different tasks with seven other willing contestants. Only one can walk away with the cash and their life, while the rest are eliminated one by one as the game takes progressively sinister turns.
Place Your Bets: The synopsis for this film might cause audiences to draw parallels with another horror film involving a disguised master of ceremonies inflicting terror upon groups of people for the sake of a twisted game, but unlike Saw , Union Furnace relies heavily on atmospheric dread instead of the shock factor of blood and gore. Much of the discomfort while viewing comes from the claustrophobic cinematography and sickly color palette permeating each shot as the players duke it out in a small bunker-like dwelling in front of an audience of masked spectators betting on which one will be the first to go. The use of these theatrical headpieces might also be reminiscent of the scare tactics prevalent in The Strangers  and The Purge , but once again, this gimmick is overshadowed by the mounting anticipation of what the participants’ next challenge might entail. Although most of these challenges are not particularly creative or terrifying (one game is actually a round of musical chairs), the end result builds up enough momentum to dismiss the mundane moments.
Meet the Contestants: Although the cast of Union Furnace does feature famed actor Keith David in the part of a disgruntled game participant, the rest of the roles are played by relatively unknown professionals. Mike Dwyer plays the lead of Cody Roy McCloud, a car thief recruited by a shady man to participate in the chance to earn riches through a lethal competition. McCloud’s performance is very nuanced yet effectively believable as the actor maintains a discreet cunning and willfulness in his delivery. The unpredictable and ever-illusive game master, simply credited as “Lion” for the mask he wears during the proceedings, is brought to life with Seth Hammond’s skillful portrayal. There is a quiet menace in his approach that does not blatantly scream “enemy,” but rather, a sadistic opportunist or generous villain toying with the selfish tendencies of his fellow man. As for the rest of the ensemble of characters, it is unfortunate that most do not share the screen long enough to get a clear sense of their motivations or depth as desperate players in a position they chose to assume.
The Winner Takes It All: Union Furnace does possess one fine element that many contemporary horror films lack, and that is a conscious sense of human nature. The greatest tragedy to befall mortals is not always dealt by the hands of a supernatural force, but by our own selfish inclinations—whether it be lust, envy, or in this case, greed. The plot poses the question of which contestants truly deserve to win if such an act could be possible since the winner will undoubtedly have undergone tasks that permanently scarred their mind, body, and spirit. Nevertheless, those who seek to risk their lives are coaxed by the possibility of a monetary reward so substantial that they have no problem selling their souls for it. And in the end, that is where the fear lies—in the reality that survival outweighs the cost of a tainted spirit.