EVIL in the Family Tree Makes for a Terrifying “Reunion” reviewed! (101 Films / Digital Screener)

Recently separated from her philandering fiancé, a pregnant Ellie moves in with her estranged mother, Ivy, whose staying at Ellie’s recently-deceased grandparents family home and packing up home furnishings to put the house on the market.  Strained with going through a pregnancy alone and tirelessly working on her theoretic book of modern medicine deriving from the roots of barbaric magic and medieval practices, Ivy pledges to take care of her while providing space to let Ellie continue research work, but the house lends to the painful memories long thought suppressed in Ellie’s mind, manifesting visions of her adopted sister, Cara, who died suddenly in house when they were children.  As the visions become more prominent, stronger, and real, Ellie questions her remorseful memories and her mother’s recollection of events that sheds light on her family’s horrendous secret of anatomical science.

From the start, the realization that Jake McHaffy’s “Reunion” isn’t going to be a happy one comes as soon as Ellie crosses the threshold into her late grandparents’ home and is immediately swathed with a blanket of unsettling ambiance.  The “Wellness” and “Free the Deed” McHaffy writes-and-directs his third film with a steadfast sense of dread in the New Zealand mystery-thriller that tackles human inbred themes of long suffering guilt, prenatal anxiety, and the role of an estranged family during a time of need.  McHaffy compounds layered fears by compositing them with the confines of an old dark and creaky house witness to all the past secrets.  “Reunion” is a production from a conglomerate of New Zealand and U.S. companies that embark on independent filmmaking endeavors by Greyshack Films, the strong female character supporting Miss Conception Films, Overactive Imagination, and Water’s End Films in association with New Zealand Film Commission, MPI Media Group, and Department of Post.

“Reunion” obviously isn’t going to be your typical relative gathering shindig with your bad joke-telling uncle wisecracking over his 10th Miller Lite or a nose picking brat of a cousin cheating at horseshoes near the pit; instead, “Reunion” a tightknit cast playing the roles of mother, father, daughter, and adopted daughter drawn together not by the sake of longing for bloodline companionship but by necessity and circumstance and imploding by the unfun games of revelations hidden inside the closest deepest and darkest of descendants. “Witches of East End” stars Julia Ormond in a nearly unrecognizable far cry of her more glamourous bewitching role in Joanna Beauchamp on the FOX produced Lifetime Television series. The English actress, who hails from Surrey, assumes the matriarchal presence of a helicopter mother overextending herself beyond the limits of her control in order to seize some kind of power she once had living in the archaic house. Ormond bounces off mother-daughter indignities with her sole child, Ellie, played by Emma Draper in her first feature lead performance. Thick tension between them causes reserved friction Ormond and Draper do well to nurture throughout while a stammering posture by “Lord of the Rings” actor John Bach as the wheelchair bound infirmed father adds a whole new layer of irregular rigidity to Ellie’s nerves and to Ivy’s patience. Aside from being blood related, father, mother, and daughter also have another thing in common – present in the moment of the death of Cara (Ava Keane). Peeling back each emotion output struggles, in a good way, to grasp the character mindset made murky by uncontrollable shaking and crying, sneaking and conniving, lies and deceits, and the disillusioned rambles that vortex around the house without pure clarity. “Reunion” rounds out the cast with Nancy Brunning, Cohen Holloway, and Gina Laverty as young Ellie.

Jake McHaffy’s “Reunion” has the hairs on the back of your neck standing from beginning to end with prolonged foreboding leading up to a shocking finale.  Between the manic and enigmatic performances from Julia Ormond and Emma Draper, a chance to rekindle the past feels like a distant thought and a lost cause being blockaded by the past’s poignant trauma they share.  McHaffy isn’t hesitant about revealing a stymieing history with flashes of image splices and flashbacks cut with an antiquated VHS-style playback producing a statically charged visual incumbrance.  The stress and strain burden’s Ellie’s pregnancy, dam breaking flood of memories, her research into the occult, and the surrounding chaotic state of the house contributes to teetering mental stability creating a visceral unintelligible and augmented reality that is too real for Ellie to keep an authentic perspective and the longer she stays and the more she’s immerse into Ivy’s poisonous maternal supremacy, only fabricating a new and scary world can Ellie dig herself out of her family’s troubling past.  There’s much going on in McHaffy’s story to be bog down fully understanding what you’re seeing and trying to piece together the puzzle is nearly impossible – I, frankly, still don’t understand much of it – but the beleaguered attention of beguiling imagery and that overwhelmingly wild ending entrusts “Reunion’s” place in psychological terror. 

Modern gothic has never looked this good as “Reunion” rises to be a stalwart of horror. 101 Films and MPI Media Group has released “Reunion” digitally this month of March, one year after the start of the pandemic that has kept families away from each other and when eases of restrictions set in that’ll shorten the gap between estranged loved ones that becomes a distressing reunion in itself. Quite a masterful brush stroke from director of photography Adam Luxton building the house into the frame and framework of the story, which goes hand-and-hand with a house that’s deemed a toxic surrounding symbolized by the black sludge that drips out of the sink and into Ellie, as well as crossing video outputs and weaving them in as well. Luxton’s imagery has formulation maturity that combines hard and soft lighting, blurring, a range of depth shots, delineated night scenes, and the capitalization of utilizing the clutter of boxes and knickknacks to tell an eclectic visual odyssey culminating toward an all-consuming finale. The 95 minute runtime film is presented in a widescreen 1.85:1 aspect ratio with no bonus scenes during or after the credits. “Reunion” creeps unsuspectingly into the skin, eyes, and soul as a metastasizing slow growth of appalling family drama.

All Hail the EVIL Slumbering One! “Sacrifice” reviewed! (101 Films / Digital Screener)

Years after being quickly whisked away to America as a small child from his remote Norwegian island birthplace, Isaac returns nearly 30-years later with his new, pregnant wife, Emma, after the death of his mother leaves the empty family home in his inheritance.  With their heart set on fixing up and selling the house before the birth of their child, Isaac and Emma learn that marketing the seaside and scenic estate comes with a tragic past when the local sheriff discloses the brutal murder of Isaac’s father inside the home.  The dreadful information and the bizarre locals with their customary traditions doesn’t alarm Isaac who, instead, feels a strong connection and is drawn to staying whereas Emma, plagued by terrifying nightmares ever since stepping onto the island, is eager to sell and return to American as soon as possible, fleeing a community that worships an aquatic deity beneath the water’s surface.   

Based off dark fantasy and science fiction writer Paul Kane’s short story, “Men of the Cloth,” found in the author’s “The Colour of Madness” collective works, “Sacrifice” is an alienating folklore horror bound by the influence of a Lovecraftian core under the direction of a filmmaking due in Andy Collier and Toor Mian.  As their sophomore film as collaborating directors, following their 2017 psychological cop horror “Charismata,” Collier and Mian tackle Kane’s short story head-on by changing only a few details, such as location, family structure, and the title from formally known as Kane’s “The Colour of Madness” to “Sacrifice”, but keep rooted the foremost principles of “Men of the Cloth’s” cultish discomfort that’s greatly inspired with the otherworldly sensation of an amiss atmosphere akin to Robin Hardy’s “The Wicker Man.”  Filmed around the idyllic and mountain enclosed shore town of Bjørk, Norway and in the town of Volda, Norway, the 2020 film seeks to plop strangers into a strange land as a production of the London-based companies, Loose Canon Films and Hydra Films RKM, in association with Dread.

Over two years ago was the last time we reviewed a Barbara Crampton movie with “Death House,” that included a plethoric cast of her all-star genre brethren with Kane Hodder, Bill Moseley, Dee Wallace, and others, and, now, Crampton makes her glorious return to the Lovecraftian turf that nostalgically brings most of us horror fans back to the New York-born actress’s “From Beyond” and “Re-Animator” days.  “Sacrifice’s” Cthulhu spirit finds Crampton playing a small town Norwegian sheriff, Renate Lygard, in which Crampton, under the training of a dialect coach, surprises us with a fair Norway accent as she provides a quasi-warm hospitality set of manners upon island outliers in Isaac (Ludovic Hughes) and Emma (Sophie Stevens) Pinkman. Hughes and Stevens nudge their way into a solid man-and-wife, but their dynamic density becomes crispy at times and pale from their initial arrival soon after rustling with the natives. The lack of vitality doesn’t stem from the wedge being driven between from the lure of Isaac being called by the natural phenomena of the Northern Lights, the drunken friendly benevolence of Gunnar (Lucas Loughran) and Ledvor (Jack Kristiansen), and the full frontal skinny dipping of Renate’s beautiful daughter, Astrid, an eye-opening film introduction from Johanna Adde Dahl; instead, the Pinkman’s bond held together about as tight as using kindergarten grade craft glue that bled into the performances as well that came off stiff and unnatural. Aside from Hughes and Stevens hailing from the United Kingdom and Crampton from the U.S., the remaining cast was curtailed to Norway nationals, as such with Loughran and Kristiansen, rounding out the cast with Erik Lundan, Dag Soerlie, and Ingeborg Mork Håskjold.

“Sacrifice’s” cult mania lays on a thick coating of grass roots that really set the tone for an foreboding outcome.  An idyllic Norway fishing village propped between the eclipsing mountain range and marine inlet intrinsically obscures an already unspoken secret that’s only been rendered on the faces and actions of the residents.  At the center of village’s idiosyncrasies are the two hapless protagonists venturing into unknown territory with only an inherited house in their back pocket and a vague sense of youthful recollection; this sets up for an obvious antagonism theme of locals with a sense of xenophobic nationalism, especially against two Americans.  The initial friction opens the flood gates for cultural customaries to be weaponized against Isaac, who wants to strongly embrace his heritage, and Emma, who can’t seem to grasp the village’s peculiar beliefs and even goes as far as being naïve of and mocking the village’s traditions and deity.  The tension is compounded by the ominous presence of the labeled slumbering one, sleeping beneath the glossy surface of the inlet waves, but conjuring up tangible and intense nightmares that plague the every island inhabitant, a mystery Emma can’t explain, won’t entertain, and ignores exploring that turns Emma floundering more into Isaac’s sudden disinterest in her albeit soon-to-be-parents.  “Sacrifice’s” climatic, tell all scene harbors more secrets regarding Isaac and Emma’s purpose on the island that are to be interpreted by the audience, but don’t connect back to any string along clues leading up to a poignant and sharply-shocking ending.  Instead, “Sacrifice” acutely wraps up not only the story but also the characters like a paper wrapped fish at the fish market ready for sale without any huff about where, why, and how that particular bug-eyed fish became the gutted victim of man’s delicacy.

“Sacrifice” shores folklore horror swelled with Lovecraftian roots and is docking digitally today, March 15th, in the UK courtesy of 101 Films. The film has a runtime of 87 minutes and is presented in a widescreen 2.35:1 aspect ratio, shot on a Sony CineAlta Venice camera. Co-director Andy Collier tackles his first credit director of photography gig with interesting shots looking up through all different angles and vessels that hold water. Whether boiling eggs, taking a bath, or in small cove, Collier, and Mian, put eyes on the bottom surface, promoting all varieties of water within it a lurking presence and the imagery is done extremely well with depth and space to pull off the illusion. A fair amount of soft lighting, moments of bright primary color glow, and the specs of well-placed lighting to barely illuminate a scene is broodingly worthwhile. Tom Linden’s original score is fiercely compliment as a folklore staple, harsh-chord intensity that lingers well after the boiling blood levels drop to a mere tentacle dwelling simmer. There were no extra features or bonus scenes included with the digital screener. While the build up didn’t pay off at the bloody end, the two-tone terror of “Sacrifice” wrecks the nerves and frays warm pleasantries with wicked wallowing, slumbering, nearby in the shallows.

The Greatest Trick EVIL Ever Pulled Was Convincing Couples the Perfect Marriage Ever Existed. “Happily” reviewed! (Saban Films / Digital Screener)

Tom and Janet have been married for 14 years.  By that amount of time elapsed, marriage has moved past the honeymoon stage and settled into routine with the spark having dulled and sex life becoming nearly, if not totally, stale, but for Tom and Janet, their libidos are the equivalent to hormone-driven teenagers.  Their marriage has happily sustained over the years, never veering off course, but when a couples’ retreat invitation is rescinded by their friends because of the envied desire for each other and a mysterious man arrives at their door step next day offering a syringe injection that will cure them into a normal married couple, Tom and Janet believe they’re a part of a sick joke by one of their so-called friends, leading to a dead body, a brief case of unknown substance, and a re-invitation to the couples’ retreat where they must figure out who is and who isn’t of the four other couples are on team Tom and Janet.  Yet, the trip founded on the idea booze and relaxation turns into a disclosure of lies, secrets, and deadly disconnections. 

What’s the secret to a long lasting marriage?  Good sex, obviously.  But can an ostensibly impenetrable marriage be flawless?  That’s one of the themes writer-director BenDavid Grabinski toys with in his inaugural feature film directorial of “Happily” that disparages the unsullied union of Tom and Janet by a quartet of couples, who are also Tom and Janet’s closest friends, who aim to stick it to the happy couple because of their own marriage and life failures.  Grabinksi, creator and writer of revamped “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” television series, incorporates that element of grim tale mystery for allegorical effect into the psychology of envious, mal intent friends projecting their negativity on Tom and Janet’s positivity and love.  “Happily” is a production of the Arizona based Common Wall Media, an indie record and film production labeled owned and operated by Chuckie Duff, and, perhaps, the reason “Happily” has a killer soundtrack that includes Tim Capello “I Still Believe.”  Jack Black (“Tropic Thunder,” “Goosebumps”) also produces the film under his Electric Dynamite Productions, Inc. banner in collaboration with Indy Entertainment (“Nightmare Cinema”). 

I find extreme difficulty seeing Joel McHale in anything remotely with a serious tone for someone who grew up with the comedian during his 12 season days of E!’s spinoff of Talk Soup titled simply, The Soup.  McHale’s range as a funny man is beyond being paramount with great comic timing and able to deliver an unlimited amounts of laughs in just his mere expressions and that has translated well into his filmic career from comedies such as “Ted” to “The Happytime Murders” and even well into his more earnest and darker roles in “Deliver Us From Evil” and, his most recent release which is “Home Alone” for a more mature audiences, “Becky.”  In “Happily,” McHale plays Tom, a loving husband to wife Janet who can’t keep their hands off each other and never fight for more than half a day in what’s staunchly considered a perfectly sickening marriage by their closest friends.  One thing I’ve learned from watching Joel McHale in this role is not only can he bear the weight evenly of an emotional thriller, but the guy is jacked!  Opposite McHale is “Penny Dreadful:  City of Angels” star Kerry Bishé, matching the sexual and profound tone as the wife, Janet. Bishé takes on Janet’s ever benevolent wifedom, elevating it to a whole new level as the working spouse, ready to gratify Tom by any means possible and in any compromising position possible, who’s also served hand and foot by the same man who knows how to reciprocate at the right moment. Bishé’s a favorable compliment to McHale as a power couple daring the odds together on the same page until losing they’re way because, simply, they’re inevitably human. Tom and Janet square off against four other couples under suspicion of a suspected prank-gone-wrong after meeting with a mysterious man played by “Office Space’s” Stephen Root. Could the pranksters be the flamboyantly affluent, but unaffectionate Karen and Val (Natalie Zea of “The Following” and Paul Scheer of “Piranha 3DD”)? Could it be the uptight lesbian couple Carla and Maude (Shannon Woodward of “Westworld” and Kirby Howell-Baptiste of the upcoming “Cruella”)? Or is it the carefree Patricia and her inhospitable husband Donald (Natalie Morales of “The Santa Clara Diet” and “Mastermind’s” John Daly)? Maybe its the anger unmanaging Richard and his newfound fiancé Gretel (Breckin Meyer of “Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare” and Charlyne Yi of ” Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich”)?

Grabinski forcibly shoves the happily in “Happily’s” Tom and Janet’s marriage down our throats with a diabolical lustful half-exposition, half-hanky-panky action before title sequence intro into their infinity spicy life. The couple screw like two teenage rabbits hopped up on an aphrodisiac more than a typical mundane couple of 14-years should ever seen in their union’s lifetime, but, then, Grabinski throws in the proverbial monkey wrench into the gears. The question comes up, and lingers throughout, whether Tom and Janet are inherently broken, a defect in their existential creation, and that begins to snowball down the hill of insidious thoughts as the protagonists have their idyllic marriage tainted by the hair brain idea of a stranger, carrying two syringes of an insta-fix made up of unknown, illuminating material, who beguiles them with bureaucratic niceties to lie his way into their home and tells them he works for a higher power. Is this mysterious man God? Perhaps, the Devil? Grabinski smartly keeps that little detail under wraps and, for the first half of the film, stays a mystery upon itself. In time, each couple begins to unravel cankerous secrets, all of which have been targeted at Tom and Janet for their perfection and that’s perhaps where “Happily” struggles a bit as a story as Grabinski has a rolodex of past events being flipped through a plethora of interaction exposition, leaving morsels to try and puzzle the uneasiness of the morose couples’ retreat together. The long and short of the story is that the audience will need more morsels to chew on, get the creative juices flowing, to understand character motivations because, in the end, “Happily” is one big couples therapy session of divulging secrets to wash away, more or less, soul-deteriorating sin.

Before all hope is lost between two people, an intervention is warranted, even if it’s a divine one in BenDavid Grabinski’s dark comedy “Happily” heading our way to theaters, digital, and on demand come Friday, March 19th from Saban Films. The R-rated film runs for 96 minutes is presented in a widescreen 2.39:1 aspect ratio that gets to showcase more of Adam Bricker’s luridly dreamy style. The “Starry Eyes” cinematographer instills a firm taste of precise, primary coloring tinting that evokes the intensity of the scene rather than pitching an outlined overlay on top of his soft lighting. The red “Predator”-esque vision through CCTV lens is a nice touch of also breaking up the more natural lit scenes for that ominous approach. Since “Happily” is coming to theaters, there is obviously no bonus material, but stick around for scenes during the credits and after credits. Lies, betrayals, murder, and the uncanny are soaked into “Happily’s” absorbent fibers as one of this years best dark comedies that hones in on ascertaining that nothing is perfect but the perfection that you make together.

In EVIL’s Chair and Ready for a Cut. “The Stylist” reviewed! (Arrow Films / Digital Screener)

Excellent at styling hair, but not so much at making friends, Claire lives a solitary life as she’s unable to personally spark connections, even with those who she interacts with on a daily basis.  As a hairstylist, she absorbs a plethora of private information provided willingly by her clients who see her as someone not significant enough to be troublesome or detrimental to hurt them, but, little do her clients know, Claire has a dark secret with obsessively overstepping into their lives and, sometimes, directly into their shoes as murder becomes a conduit for Claire to experience a slither of momentary solidarity and belonging happiness.   Brief in its euphoria, the elated feeling doesn’t last and Claire finds herself back into a vicious cycle beginning with being defeated, but when a regular client, Olivia, begs for wedding hair help, Olivia befriends the stylist who begins to sink deeper into a misinterpreted friendship with Olivia fabricated inside Claire’s disturbed mind. 

Whenever stepping onto the hair clippings of a barbershop, sit on the padded, pump-hydraulic chair, and be asked by a for certain fallible person how I want would like my haircut, my hands nervously clutch each other, the space between my eyebrows fold in and crunch, microscopic beads of sweat go down my hair raised back and the agitation in my mind grows louder than a blow dyer on a high setting.  Why do all these externally stemmed irritants happen to me at the seemingly communal and smile gracing barbershop?  Think about my situation, one driven by introverted behaviors and pessimism for the human race, this way:  your neck is choked tight with a hairdresser body-bag resembling cape, sharp, haircutting sheers clipping swiftly overhead, and the loud buzzing of a motor purring around your ears’ edge before they detailing the side of your face with tiny razors moving hundreds of miles per hour.  Let’s not also forget about the straight-razor across your neck to attack the five o’clock shadow!  No, thank you!  So, there was already an abundance of established anxiety heading into Jill Gevargizian’s written-and-directed hairdresser horror, “The Stylist,” that takes just a little bit more off than just what’s on top.  The “Dark Web” filmmaker reteams with co-writer Eric Havens to extend the profile of the quiet and quaint, Victorian chic hairdresser, Claire and her lonely killer inclinations based off their 2016 short film of the same title and add Los Angeles based copywriter and “Night of the Wolf’s” Eric Stolze into the salon of psychological horrors mix. “The Stylist” is a production of Gevargizian’s Sixx Tape Productions, that also includes Eric Havens and lead star Najarra Townsend, alongside co-productions Claw Productions, Method Media, and The Line Film Company.

Najarra Townsend reprises her role as Claire, the lonely hairstylist bedeviled by a lack of belonging and rapport with no family or friends. Claire spirals into internalized madness that unveils when trying to step inside the lives of others as her own. The “Wolf Mother” star becomes a granular speck of torment plagued severely by social awkwardness to the point of her need for perfecting the imaginary bond between her and Brea Grant’s character, Olivia, goes into destruction level transgressions that’s normal, living rent free, in Claire’s headspace. Grant, writer and director of one of our favorite films of 2020, “12 Hour Shift,” and in the recently released, critically acclaimed, Natasha Kermani thriller, “Lucky,” has to be a larger than life persona whose the center of attention, as soon-to-be-bride going through the throes of wedding planning, that can draw in the wide-eyed and impressionable Claire like a moth to a flame. Townsend’s a specific kind of talent to get inside Claire’s ennui state not once, but twice. The latter precisely nails down Claire’s outlying, exterior behavior, but also smooths out a mustard nuance veneer of vintage chic that becomes a part of the building blocks peculiarly exclusive to her quietly disruptive cause. Starkly contrasted against Claire, Grant relates to who we all see on the outside as Olivia, a shining glow of smiles and worries that most people can digest with ease on a daily bases and while her life, as chaotic as may seem with a wedding near on the horizon and questioning a deep down decision about marriage, is juxtaposed with such distinction that Gervargizian literally puts Claire and Olivia side-by-side in a split screen early in the film to expose one hiding her secrets and the other letting them all hang out. Sarah McGuire (“The House of Forbidden Secrets”), Millie Milan (“Clownado”), Davis DeRock and Laura Kirk round out the supporting cast.

Take a moment and breathe the very essence of women-driven horror that’s as stylish as it is deliciously deranged.  “The Stylist” echoes similar psychopathic traits of William Lustig’s “Manic” and displays self-careening elements soaked in barbicide and Gothicism.  The junior film of Jill Gevargizian narrates through the eyes of Claire’s unraveling humanity from the stylist’s quick fix of bloody hair removal to the potential for climbing out of that deep, dark hole of loneliness only to be suddenly sideswiped by the falters of manufactured delusions. “The Stylist” is wrapped in a sullen hairnet that never shows the jovial side of Claire’s pleasures as she’s embodying someone under their locks after calculatingly cutting more than just their hair; a perspective exclusively held within Claire’s head, leaving viewers entangled in her in seemingly normal beauty shell and her inner demented chaos. You feel sorry for her forlorn life, but creeped out by that same life’s byproduct. One aspect that “The Stylist” lacks, that can be off-putting for some, is the mold that made Claire. Miniscule slips of her upbringing becomes not enough to paint an exact portrait of Claire as a malevolent monster with sociable dysphoria and as the story builds to a climax and Claire tries to imitate her mother, who died in her mid 30’s when Claire was 17, the mimicry fairs to say that her mother also had similar problems that has innately passed and has coped a different way of dealing with mental illness by way of alcoholism, mentioned by Claire in a moment of courting a friendship with an eager bridezilla, Olivia.

What a fitting film to be discussed and celebrated on International Women’s Day 2021 in the Jill Gevargizian directed and Najarra Townsend lead “The Stylist” now released exclusively on Arrow Film’s UK VOD platform ahead of the physical Blu-ray package and digital HD releases come June 2021. Film film clocks in at a 105 minute runtime and is presented in a widescreen 2.39:1 aspect ratio. Behind the camera is Robert Patrick Stern whose composition of imagery is based mainly in natural lighting while dabbling in warm coloring such as reds, the occasional vibrant magenta, and a consistent yellow mustard, a favorite not only in Claire’s wardrobe but also tinged on the lens whenever a part of Claire’s localized disturbia. Stern’s clean and sleek picture palpably elevated John Pata’s editing of montages that were superimposed with transitions and the soul searing music of Nicholas Elert’s melancholic inducing piano-industrial score. There were no bonus features included nor were there any bonus scenes during or after the credits. “The Stylist” honors the past by reinventing the wheel in Jill Gevargizian’s clipping thriller with a hair-raising performance by Najarra Townsend as the maniacal hairdresser lonely next door.

When EVIL Strikes a Family Hard is When Fission Divides and Conquers. “Nuclear” reviewed! (101 Films / Digital Screener)

Emma witnesses her troubled brother violently beating their mother while dragging her through the woods.  After he leaves, Emma and her injured mother escape to the countryside, driving through the night until coming upon a village house, next to what was once a large power plant that now sits vacant, to squat for a few days.  Emma comes into an encounter with a local boy a little older than herself with a free spirit for illegal extreme sports and taking dangerous risks to new heights.  What was intended to be an isolating refuge has turned into an alluring interest for Emma who admires the boy’s nomadic lifestyle, but while her mother’s physical injuries heal, a lingering trauma begins to emerge and Emma’s violent brother is also hot on their trail seeking them out.

Lately, our reviews have been on a stretch of psychological thrillers by first time feature film directors expressing a compelling narrative in the worst of situations; we’ve tackled the unhealthy family relations while battling acute mental illness with Joe Marcantonio’s “Kindred” and have taken a step back in time into the Cold War era with isolation tension and uncontrollable violent outbursts in the “Darkness in Apartment 45,” directed by Nicole Groton.  Well, we’re going for the hat trick with Catherine Linstrum debuting her written and directed psychological drama, “Nuclear,” that deals with the fallout of an estranged, threadbare family under the looming shadow of a defunct nuclear power plant, upending a whole new meaning for the term nuclear family.  Co-written with longtime collaborator, David-John Newman. “Nuclear” is a radiating co-production funded by the British Film Institute, Fields Park Media, and Ffilm Cymru Wales, and Great Point Media with Stella Nwimo serving as producer and Paul Higgins as executive producer.

Much of the narrative hinges on Emma, “Locke & Key’s” Emilia Jones, as a 14-year daughter at the center of her brother’s terrible misdeed that sparks a flight of escape to the country and then befriends an eccentric boy who pulls her toward a more grounded frame of mind despite his extreme antics.  The boy, charmingly played by “1917’s” George MacKay, is exactly the distraction Emilia needed while sheltering in refuge. MacKay boyish good looks accentuates his character’s overweening attitude that renders a thin layer of mysteriousness about him as the boy,, and when I say boy I mean young man not much older than Emilia, lives out of his van near the power plant and does backflips on a stone bridge. With such a small cast, one would assume the boy would have interactions with Emilia’s mother or brother, but that’s not the case as the film purposefully uses evasive maneuvers intended not to mingle the boy with Emilia’s mother, played by another Resident Evil Jill Valentine actress (see review of “Darkness in Apartment 45”) Sienna Guillory, and brother Oliver Coopersmith (“It’s Alive” remake), who are weaved into different stages of Emilia’s cerebral reactions to events that unfold unexpectedly. Floating through the story, like a supernatural Japanese house wife, is Noriko Sakura who, much like most of the other characters, plays that is unidentified, but Sakura’s wraithlike presence attaches itself to Emilia’s mother as a telltale sign that something isn’t quite right with the mother’s mental state.

“Nuclear,” in regards to the term, can be interpreted and dissected on many levels within the film; two possible, and perhaps the more obvious, espies are a nuclear family (as a pun on the phrase that denotes nuclear fission) that goes through a chain reaction of dependent events after a horrible event and the other would be the blatant power plant sitting idle and empty in the background, a symbol of a ruin that once harnessed power and gave energy to all and an allegory to this young teenager Emilia’s handling of the crime committed against her one and only protector- her mother. “Nuclear” is very much a young girl coming of age film that strikes chords of self-reliance and free choice while also strumming to disconnect from her parents and family, but she must face them first in order to really let go of the past. But does Catherine Lindstrum pull all the elements together? Lindstrum’s brain-teasing drama will ultimately confuse the general masses. Hell, “Nuclear” even confuses me by not sewing the last threads to connect the stitches of hecatomb effects as the principles players somber through an inexplicit tapestry that’s not clear, present, and often feels distant. The end result does evoke a sense of a coming of age story, but how that adolescent scores through tribulation is about opaque as murky water.

 

“Nuclear” is a twisting cerebral topography tale comprised of seasoned actors and promising young talent from the United Kingdom being distributed courtesy 101 Films, releasing digitally November 9th. Behind the camera is French cinematographer Crystel Fournier with a harsh realism that delivers a natural, but bleak tone full of shadows and gray contrast. Fournier captures and differentiates Emma’s solitude and isolation, especially when she, inadvertently, searches for answers through the motif of faith centric crosses and messages that surround her in and out of the cottage. Stephen McKeon’s score compliments Fournier’s atmo-melancholic with beautiful synth piano and Celtic akin violin compositions. There were no bonus features included with this digital screener and there were no bonus scenes during or after the credits. Don’t expect a mushroom cloud of edge-of-your-seat drama and psychological torment, “Nuclear” is the breadth of anticipation of the Cold War, never knowing what, when, and where to expect the bomb to drop in Catherine Linstrum’s debuting quandary.