(2021) Psychological Horror (IFC Midnight) Sienna Guillory, Jessica Alexander, Ruby Stokes, Lindsay Duncan, Kaine Zajaz, Richard Keep, Deka Walmsley, Rina Mahoney, Jonathan Nyati, Walter van Dyk, Andrew Steele, Adam Abbou, Finn Bennett, Dylan Clout, Selena Thompson, Kevin Marshall, Hannah Zoé Ankrah, Suzie Voce, Kharlis Ubiaro, Leon Finnan, Charlie Roberts, Polly Turner. Directed by Ruth Paxton
=Mother-daughter relationships are often complicated, layered things, particularly when the daughter is in her difficult teen years. When the behavior of the daughter becomes disquieting, maybe even self-destructive, the question has to be raised if the impetus is psychological, or a cry for attention – or something far worse.
Holly (Guillory) has a lot to cope with, having two teenage daughters. She has been through the wringer; after nursing her terminally ill husband, she is rewarded with witnessing (along with her older daughter Betsey (Alexander)) his grisly suicide. Such a traumatic event is bound to leave some scars; for Holly, it has led to her drawing inward, isolating her family in a dark, cave-like home. For Betsey, it is becoming somewhat nihilistic, or at least fatalistic, and adopting the accoutrements of goth. Only younger daughter Isabelle (Stokes) seems relatively unaffected.
But at a party one night, Betsey – who has gone outside to get some air – is lured into the nearby woods by a mesmerizing blood-red moon and by sibilant whispers. When she returns home, she has changed; the sight of food makes her deeply nauseous, causes bouts of violent resistance and makes her skin tingle. At first, Holly attributes her daughter’s behavior to a severe hangover, but when the condition persists over several days with Betsey refusing to take even so much as a single pea in sustenance, Holly begins to suspect that something deeper is at play. When medical doctors write it off to “something viral,” and psychiatrists make little headway, Betsey begins to insist that she witnessed something in the woods; a vision of something coming. She now believes her body belongs to a higher power and shouldn’t be desecrated with food.
Into this equation comes June (Duncan), Holly’s mom who is understandably skeptical of Betsey’s condition, thinking it as an attempt to get attention. June has her own demons, having had to raise a mentally ill daughter (not Holly), and as Holly begins to believe that maybe something supernatural is going on, particularly when it is discovered that Betsey hasn’t lost so much as a pound since this whole thing began. June and Holly begin to butt heads. Betsey, in the meantime, has attained a kind of serenity. Is the apocalypse really coming?
This is the kind of horror movie that doesn’t have any “gotcha” scares, nor does it really provide anything that terrifies other than the general situation. The horror is psychological in nature and revolves around the relationships between the four women in the family. This is not a movie that you can watch passively; it requires that you pay attention and the filmmakers expect you to work at least as hard as they did making the film, not an unreasonable request, but for a lot of movie buffs, it may be more than they are willing to give.
This is particularly true in the first half, which moves at a very slow pace. Things to pick up in the second half, as the tone gets weirder and weirder, and some very strong performances (particularly by Duncan, a veteran actress who has been known to steal a scene or two during a distinguished career) and some very deeply layered characters and storylines.
With a production setting that actually parallels the themes of the film, it is clear that a great deal of thought went into the making of this film. Paxton is a brilliant new voice, whose next project I’m eager to see. This may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but anyone who has ever had a contentious relationship with a parent, or loved (or been) a teenage girl, there is a lot to unpack here – and like the conclusion of any trip, is sometimes more satisfying to ponder it afterwards than it is to actually be on the journey.
REASONS TO SEE: The second half of the film is truly gripping…
REASONS TO AVOID: …But the first half of the film is terribly slow.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, sensuality, drug use and some disturbing images (including an on-screen suicide).
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the feature film debut for Bull, who has a passel of award-winning shorts to her credit.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/21/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews; Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Saint Maud
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Brighton 4th