Being Dismissed is EVIL That’s Hard to Choke Down. “Swallow” reviewed! (Second Sight Films / BD-R Screener)

Newly pregnant housewife, Hunter, putters around the house while her workaholic husband enjoys the fruits of success and friendship with colleagues.  When she’s not cleaning the house or preparing a meal for herself, Hunter stares into the oblivion of her isolating environment.  The country girl who really had nothing to her name has fortunately found an opportunity to never be worried about financial insecurities and with every material thing a person could want in their right at her fingertips.  All Hunter has to sacrifice is her control.  Feeling lonely, powerless, and trapped, Hunter discovers swallowing inedible, dangerous objects gives her great joy and something she can control.  As she goes deeper into this obsession and her perfect world begins to crumble, she’s confronted with reexamining her dark past that stems her unusual eating habit.

Sometimes it’s our strange quirks, our self-destruction behaviors, and our subconscious need to be noticed, or in control, or out of the pockets of others that can deliver horrid outcomes that, ironically enough, can be also our incognito liberator.  As such displayed in Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ written and directed introductory feature film, a blend of family melodrama and interior body horror, with “Swallow.”  The 2019 released psychological thriller is difficult to digest, literally, as the protagonist struggles coping with external control issues in a seemingly perfect life, a life that has never quite felt like her own, while also encouraging an alarming new physiological appetite for what is known in the eating disorder circles as Pica.  Set in upstate New York, shot around the idyllic Hudson Valley area, “Swallow” is produced by the award-winning “Nomadland’s” Mollye Asher and “Black Box’s” Mynette Louie, who have a long history in investing into bold and interesting emotional depth tales, and is a production of the France based companies, Charades and Logical Pictures.

Undertaking the daunting task of Pica emulating is Haley Bennett.  “The Haunting of Molly Hartley” and “Hardcore Henry” actress tethers a line to the core basis of her character Hunter who has to gradually chip away portions of her blank exterior of a person subconsciously suffering from similar symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome.  Hunter very much believes in the social saturation of wifely duties at an attempt to please her bread-winning husband Ritchie (Austin Stowell, “Colossal”), constantly gathering reassurances and happiness from him.  I also like the play on words with the husband name Ritchie that speaks to his haughty behavior.  Bennett, in great detail, captures Hunter’s disfigured, uncertain happiness and wholehearted attempts to join the ranks of a proud housewife, an area mirrored by silent authority from her mother-in-law Katherine (Elizabeth Marvel, “All the Little Things We Kill”).  As soon as Hunter swallows that very first foreign object, Bennett derives true delight from the bizarre action.  From then on, blistering is away is being a slave to Ritchie’s wealthy ties as that little object, that spherical inkling of hope, gets the marble rolling down the gullet of taking back what’s hers, her life.  Bennett and Stowell finesse their characters’ relationship with a teetertotter of genuine sympathy and ingenuine gratification in what’s a blurry line of compassion or a total fake façade for the allusion of appearances.  The weakest character, for me, is Luay, the Syrian expat who fled the turmoil of homeland war and has become something of a caretaker to Hunter.  Played by Laith Nakli, Luay’s sympathy for Hunter runs deeper than her psychological disorder, and Nakli can dish out awkward, slow burn compassion with the best of them, but that connection between Luay and Hunter misses the timely mark with a blank and acute switching of allegiances gone unspoken and with inaction.  Luna Lauren Velez (“Dexter”), David Rasche (“Cobra”), Babak Tafti, Nichole Kang (“Ten Minutes to Midnight”), Zabryna Guevara, and “American Horror Story’s” Denis O’Hare rounds out the cast.

Hunter’s fixation can be compared to the likes of any other vice and soul-swallowing addiction – gambling , drugs, sex – but the very fact that it’s Pica, and on a certain level of the OCD spectrum, makes Mirabella-Davis’ script somewhat of a curious oddity as the filmmaker builds a story around a dysfunctional family and one’s own personal grasp on destiny.  Though set in modern times, “Swallow” very much has a 1950s-1960s vibe with the dynamic of the working husband and the wife stays home to spruce up the house; there’s even a particular scene of Hunter vacuuming in a 50’s-ish tea length swing dress.  Despite the story’s curious and odd nature and the stuck in time antiquated gender inequality veneer, Mirabella-Davis utilizes these aspects to shape and shed light on the more diabolical of inner detriments with Hunter’s lack of confidence and autonomy stemmed from a difficult to swallow past and a financially affluent relationship that actually disallows personal freedom.  “Swallow” is oppressive in ways as Ritchie and his family and friends attempt to squeeze every ounce of value out of Hunter with value being the unborn child amongst other things.   The psychology of “Swallow” melds past and present together to form Hunter’s dangerous method of taking over the reigns of a life she never steered and Mirabella-Davis crafts an exquisite niche thriller to encourage us to gobble up.

Second Sight Films, a label known for it’s substantial and lavish re-releases, snacks on another high profile film with their profound limited edition Blu-ray of Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ “Swallow.” The single disc, PAL encoded, region B BD-25 is presented in the original aspect ratio of a widescreen 2.39:1 aspect ratio. Since a BD-R was provided for review purposes, I am unable to comment on the true characteristics and qualities of the audio and video, but do note Katelin Arizmendi’s stunning cinematography that’s full of palpable texture to every minute piece of inedible edibles Hunter puts down her throat and the gorgeous long shots of Hunter being engulfed by the depth with the isolating forest setting that looks to be lurking in the background. The limited edition release hit shelves this past Tuesday, the 22nd, and has a ton of features to check out, including a new audio commentary by director Mirabella-Davis and producers Moilye Asher and Mynette Louie, A Personal Story exclusive interview with the director that’s seriously in-depth and passionate about his work on “Swallow,” Something Bubbling Underneath exclusive interview with producer Moilye Asher, The Process exclusive interview with editor Joe Murphy, Metal and Glass exclusive interview with composer Nathan Halpern, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’s take on “Swallow” A Room of One’s Own, Mirabella-Davis’ short film “Knife Party,” and a rigid slipcase with new artwork by Haley Turnbull along with a soft cover booklet with an introduction by the director and containing essays by Anne Billson, Jordan Crucchiola, and Ella Kemp. Lastly, at the tail of the special features are 6 beautiful collectors’ art cards. “Swallow” is rated UK 18 and runs for 94 minutes. Bennett wins the prize for making “Swallow” a throat-clearing success and bravo to Mirabella-Davis for being brave enough with an unusual story set around an uncommon eating disorder and directing the hell out of it.

Limited Edition Blu-ray from Second Sight Films Available at Amazon.com

EVIL is All in Your Head! “Implanted” reviewed! (Gravitas Ventures / Digital Screener)

Year 2023.  After a devastated global pandemic, health companies engineered an experimental personal diagnostic nanochip called LEXX that is surgically implanted into the a human’s spine.  For Sarah, a woman down on her luck living homelessly after being let go from her job and struggling to cope with her mother’s early stages of dementia, quick cash is essential for survival and this experimental program, that uses advanced AI technology, tempts a desperate Sarah into participating in human trial runs.  Initial implementation serves Sarah with quick vitals and healthy lifestyle recommendations articulated by an artificial voice in her mind, but when the AI has other plans for Sarah, such ordering the assassinations of the health startup’s top leadership and destroying all evidence of the program, Sarah has to either obey every lethal command or fight against the insidious tech that has complete control over her pain sensors as well as her mother’s life.

COVID-19 has been the baseline culprit for millions of deaths worldwide.  The impact of the pandemic has inspired filmmakers to a creative outlet of churning out stories surrounding a lifechanging and devasting virus.  Some are ridiculous, off-color, cash grabbers – “Corona Zombies” comes to mind – but there are a few out there that challenge the gratuitous advantage-taking by folding in more substance into the story.  Fabien Dufils attempts to go above and beyond the here and now with a post-pandemic, self-containing thriller entitled “Implanted” and is the first written and directed non-made for television feature length independent film for the once music video director set in the urban jungle of New York City.  “Implanted” spins A.I. tech horror with the whooshing fast track of the health care system to eagerly push experimental drugs, in this case a clinical artificial intelligent grafting, upon the desperate, often marginalized, public.  There’s also an allegorical smidgen of mental illness thrown in there as well.  Dufils co-writes the script with fellow Belgium screenwriter David Bourgie under Dufils’ Mad Street Pictures production company.

Making her lead performance debut, mentally wrestling an invasive cybernetic nanochip, is Michelle Girolami who also serves as associate producer.  We all have that little voice inside our heads, telling us what do and think to an inevitably end of accordance with that ever so delicate whisper of persuasion and that’s how Girolami has seemingly approached this role with that little suggestive presence cranked up to the level of full-fledged chaos on two-legs.   Girolami ultimately is a reverse mech with all the cold puppeteering directed shots directed by programmed software and so much of the actress’s performance is solo, feigning responses to a bodiless voice and reacting to pain generated from within whenever she doesn’t comply to the relentless LEXX.  Unable to bounce dialogue and reactions off of others can be a tough sell for most actors, but Girolami really slathers it on thick the vein-popping strain of integrated torture.  Opposite Sarah is Carl (Ivo Velon, “Salt”), another hapless experiment participant forced into assassination servitude, but Carl’s purpose isn’t exactly crystal clear.  His LEXX unit shepherds him down a collision path with Sarah, but the two separate LEXX units have no shared intentions and while that’s wonderfully niche to provide individual A.I. with their own personal liberties and schemes, Carl just wanders the city, sometimes murdering the program’s top leadership or doing something polar opposite of Sarah with no substantial collusion about their subversive attacks.  The what could have been interesting cat-and-mouse game tapers off and the story leads into more of characters trying to regain back their autonomy and this is where Dufils’ narrative shines using LEXX as a symbol for mental disorders and how those impoverished or distressed are struggling to cope can lose themselves and give in to the internalized madness slipping outward.  Parallelly, Sarah’s mother (Susan O’Doherty) suffers from dementia that reinforces the theme.  Martin Ewens, Shirley Huang, Sunny Koll, John Long, and David Dotterer wrap up the cast list.

“Implanted’s” sci-fi concept can be described as if Amazon’s Alexa, with all the internet connections and text-to-speech bells and whistles, suddenly became murderously woke inside your cerebral cortex.  “Implanted” relays humanity’s lopsided dependency on advanced technology that continues to make us even more less connected to each other and the possibility of a machine takeover just that more feasible.  However, much like when a software program crashes, a malfunctioning script error ravages the narrative for not being tight enough, leaving unaccompanied loose ends as devices that fail to progress the story along stemmed by sudden drop off character development and unknown, speculation at best, motivations.  There’s also no discernable backstory to the why LEXX’s A.I. has snafued.  At least with “Terminator,” Kyle Reese provides exposition about Skynet’s sudden upheaval and domination over the human race whereas “Implanted” dives into none of that rich framework and tossing it aside for the sake of just tormenting Sarah into being a killer pawn, moving her across the NYC chessboard with the intent of taking down the king, queen, and knights of LEXX’s program.  To what ends?  Explanation on the specified targeting isn’t made entirely clear as programmers to CEOs are solely liquidated for just being involved.  

“Implanted” is a warzone for headspace and there can be only one victor in this psychological, sci-fi thriller released now, digitally, from Gravitas Ventures.   The unrated, 93 minute film also showcases the various hats of director Fabien Dufils with one being cinematographer.  Dufils captures obscure, slightly neglected, areas of New York City that’s becomes refreshing to consume because even though the Big Apple is well known for glass and steel skyscrapers, the undergrowth locations ground “Implanted” as relatable without the monolithic structures and hustle and bustle tropes.  In juxtaposition to the down-to-Earth background, the decision to sprinkle in visual effect blood splatter taints “Implanted’s” realism.  Though not gory by any means, digitally added blood can’t be cleansed from the physical veneer and being an indie feature, I would have though a run to corner store for a bit of red food coloring would have been a cost saving measure.  “Implanted” adds another layer to the man versus machine subgenre with tinges of mental illness and too reliant on tech themes but undoubtedly leaves gaps in the narrative coding, racking strenuous mental effort without the egregious assistance of an A.I. nanochip.

Expectations Lead to EVIL in “The Cool Lakes of Death” reviewed! (Cult Epics / Blu-ray)

Set in the early 1900s, Hedwig’s childhood is filled with love, wealth, and innocence, but when her mother dies suddenly at the hands of typhoid, life turns complicated as death, draconian religious teachings, and an uncompassionate home clouds Hedwig’s mind on what exactly her relationship with men and with God should look like.  Punished for self-pleasure and scolded for her belief in fantasies, Hedwig enters adulthood as a conformist seeking to marry a well off man and have children in what was supposed to be the perfect union that reveals in sexuality the secret to marriage.  Prim and proper on the outside but a child on the inside, Hedwig misjudges her affairs with men and indulges in a pretense relationship with them.   When she finally finds happiness with a renowned pianist and the two have a child together, Hedwig’s hold on reality snaps as the child dies a few days later, sending the once elegant Hedwig into a tailspin of unhinged mental stability, drug addiction, and prostitution. 

“The Cool Lakes of Death” is the adapted film based off the Netherlands novel from the dual profession novelist and psychiatrist, Frederik van Eeden, entitled Van de koele meren des doods, which closely translates to “The Deeps of Deliverance,” a psychological period piece and melodrama with themes on the antiquated God-fearing expectations of a 19th century young woman, the solidity of marital unions, and a woman’s sexual liberation.  “The Cool Lakes of Death” is the follow up directorial from “A Woman Like Eve” director, Nouchka van Brakel,” off a screenplay written also by Brakel and co-written with Ton Vorstenbosch.  The exquisite tragedy of a woman submerged in societal misconceptions of love that can’t be forced and the mutuality of pleasures is yet another Dutch production from producer Matthijs van Heijningen and his company Sigma Film Productions, who have overseen a handful of Brakel films including “The Debut” and “A Woman Like Eve.”

Understanding the mixed emotions of a young girl in the throes of self-discovery, with a pinch for the dramatic flair, Renée Soutendijk gives a prismatic performance, glistened in a stringent social dogma, of hope and pity.  The Netherlands actress, who had the role of Miss Huller in the 2018 “Suspiria” remake, the inundated Hedwig, friends call her Hetty, who has inexhaustible amount of hope in her search for passion, but insurmountable roadblocks and obstacles corrupt Hetty’s mental processor.  Soutendijk’s elegance has a soft innocence to it, a naïve virtue that contrasts bleakly against the subtle and not so subtle influencers of Hetty’s life and Soutendijk really opens our eyes when Hetty’s full blown crazy in a clear and precise moment of snapping her rationality like a dried and brittle twig.  The performance digs at you and Brakel exploits the worst (good cinematically) parts of Hetty’s break that has her be a wild, naked woman thrashing, spitting, and puking in a locked room of a psyche ward, injecting needles into her arm night after night after selling her body to unscrupulous men, or even stuffing her newborn baby into a duffel bag and heads off to sea to search for her husband Gerard, a subdued, appearance concerned gay man that never cared physically for Hetty, played by Adriaan Olree in his debut performance.  Hetty comes across two other lovers; one a flyby and compassionate artist Johan (Erik van ‘t Wout), who would have matched her passion, but not her social status, and, eventually, she finds much of what she seeks in a renowned concert pianist Ritsaart (Derek de Lint, “When A Stranger Calls” remake), who refuses to admit their relationship in fear of scandal and ruin of his career.  Along the way, Hetty listens more to her blinded heart than she does her logical mind when intaking sound advice from advocates of her wellbeing as Ritsaart’s best friend Joop (Peter Faber, “A Woman Like Eve”), her best friend Leonora (Kristine de Both), and a hospital nun (Claire Wauthion) attempt to steer her toward a happier existence. 

I really can’t get enough of Hetty unable to secure her ideal happiness.  That might sound a little inconsiderate but what is a perfect relationship?  Brakel explores how an sought ideal can turn into a damaging expedition for the white whale.  Instead of being the ill-fated, hellbent Captain Ahab, Hetty’s land based monomaniacal drive of fairytale love becomes her ultimate downfall, sinking her deeper into the depths of despair, loneliness, and a cataclysmic separation from reality.  Gerard wasn’t perfect because he secretly longed for men, Johan didn’t have the right social stature for a lady of her status, and Ritsaart kept their love hidden below the public eye.  There’s a quite a bit of feminism loitering around in that last statement with a touch of selfishness to no fault of Hetty’s and all circulate back to some sort of suppression whether it’s sexually or emotionally umbrellaed by patriarchal doctrine, discourse, and discipline.  The culture toxicity is so severe that the older generation of women are beguiled by it’s power to be controlling others themselves under the thumb of a male-dictated society as we see in Hetty’s Governess in tattling on her pupil’s every move to her wimp of a widowed father.  “The Cool Lakes of Death” is a beautiful disaster in almost a sing-songy narrative delivered by director Nouchka van Brakel’s mighty delicate touch. 

For the first time in North America and single in a trilogy of Nouchka van Brakel releases from Cult Epics, as well as in a trilogy boxset, the 1982 downcast drama “The Cook Lakes of Death,” arrives on DVD and Blu-ray home video.  The New 4k High-Def transfer is scanned from the original 35mm negative with an impeccable and nearly blemish-free restoration.  The film is presented in the European matted widescreen, 1.66:1 aspect ratio, with plenty of good looking natural grain and a softer image in the trashy romance first act then to a harsher, grittier quality during the time of her ruin under the eye of Theo van de Sande who ventured from the Netherlands to the U.S. later in his career and worked on Joe Dante’s “The Hole,” “Little Nicky,” and “Blade.”  A couple of whip pans into deep focus shots enrich the production, a technique that has served Sande in his later work.  The Dutch language DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 lossy audio is as good as this title will ever see without an actiony framework.  Dialogue is completely discernible with well synched English subtitles.  A few pops in the span but no major damage to the audio to speak about in length.  Soundtrack has barrier moments of muffled penetration.  Not too many special features to touch upon with the theatrical trailer, a poster and sill gallery, a 1982 newsreel unearthed from the Polygoon Journal archive, and a reversible Blu-ray cover. “The Cool Lakes of Death” is young and naïve adolescence transitioning into womenhood only to be tripped up every step of the way; Hetty’s eager to blossom turns to withering as the underdog in life’s kennel and Brakel’s purificatory rite of passage beautifully disembowels hope and dreams in a dreamy fashion until finding faith in life come full circle, well almost, in commencing with both feet standing into adulthood.

“The Cool Lakes of Death” on Blu-ray Home Video at Amazon.com

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.

EVIL Exploits Your Fears in “Phobic” reviewed! (Samuel Goldwyn Films / Digital Screener)

The most vulnerable are being chained to chairs and tortured by the terrifying weight of their own extreme phobias until their bodies can no longer take the stress, fatally collapsing where they sit due to heart failure.  Homicide detective Riley Sanders notices frightening similarities to her own abduction months earlier where the kidnapper tortures the stunned detective with an intense light on repeater.   Refusing to believe her abduction and the case she’s investigating are linked, her partner, Paul Carr, continues to insist that her traumatic experience might be key to solving the homicides and finding the killer.  As the detectives dig deeper into a radical psychiatrist’s phobia program whose patients are showing up the killer’s victim list, they find themselves at the center of a disturbing experiment that aims unleash an inner, and only ever theorized, phenomenal ability.

Bryce Clark’s psychological cop thriller, “Phobic,” tales an irregular and irrational serial killer objective derivative of David Fincher’s “Seven” twisted quietly with elements from the superhero universe. Darkly toned exploitation of forcing the worst of the worst fears upon the those already cripple down by their distinct aversion, the 2017 shot “Phobic” marks the return of a Clark written and directed full length feature since the filmmaker’s 2012 debut in both categories with a romantic-comedy starring Mischa Barton.  Both polar opposite films were shot on location in Salt Lake City, Utah, Clark’s residential city, surrounded by picturesque ice capped mountains overlooking the illuminated, pedestrian-saturated metropolitan area home to the story’s wicked psychotronic experiment that literally frightens people to death.  “Phobic’ is a production of Storylab and Pale Moon Entertainment.

Two detectives continue to peel back the arcane layers of the unusual case before them with detective Riley Sanders at the heart of the matter being linked to the recent string of methodical abductions tailored specifically with the victim.  “Looking Glass” actress Jacque Gray dichotomizes Riley not only as a persistent investigator eager to bring this case to an end but also as a struggling closeted neurotic with her own fears that bleed through the celluloid.  Clark makes sure to underscore Riley’s nightly routine before going to bed with her constantly turning on and off lights in her path to represent a lingering but indeterminate phobia response.  Riley is supposed to be this tough, but law abiding cop, who survived a harrowing ordeal, but Gray hardly expresses Riley’s scarred rigid soul, representing more so in the lines of coloring her disposition by the numbers that refuse to waiver outside normalcy.  Devin Liljenquist is even more so vanilla as Riley’s partner, Paul.  As his introductory feature film, Liljenquist’s doesn’t carry the range of a cop who cares, topping out with a straight-faced sleepwalk that challenges the stakes and can be considerably creepy, like subtly sexual grooming predator, when Paul is trying to convince Riley to open her fears with him.  The character audiences deserved, or better suited as Riley’s partner to provide contrast, would have been the third scarcely screened detective on the case that occasionally popped in as the first investigator on scene of a crime in Alex Nibley’s Detective Hank Ferry.  The slightly elder detective, complete with Nibley’s stark white, Anderson Cooper hairstyle, had a quick, dark wit and cavalier presence about him that breached the Riley and Paul uncharismatic stiffness with a relieving change of pace dynamics between colleagues.  You couldn’t wait to see Detective Ferry to make a reappearance, but sadly, his character is sorely underutilized for only a couple of moments.  “Phobic’s” in-and-out supporting cast includes James Jamison, Tiffani DiGregorio, Fred Spencer, and Ernie Lively as Riley Sanders secret-keeping father.

“Phobic” follows a basic detective thriller in tracking down a homicidal maniac with a niche kill tactic that bread crumbs one of the investigating officers into being subverted by a conflict of interest stemmed from her past. However, out of Salt Lake City’s blue skies, Clark suddenly pivots in his script, diverting from a dark, gritty Finchian narrative to an acutely forged new shape of revival and hope, a shape that bares no cape, no mask, or no bald, psychic power yielding man bound to a wheelchair playing headmaster of a school that serves as a façade for an elite team of powerful, do good mutants. If my hint wasn’t overly blunt, let me be utterly clear, “Phobic” has no distinct x-factor but goes from fears to fight with the psychotronic theory where energy and strength derive from stress and fear over the witnessing the impending doom of a loved one. Urban legend surrounding the notion of hysterical strength siphons away the psychosomatic element from the grooves of the cop thriller and Clark copiously throws in crucial red herrings to keep viewers muddling and not Professor X cerebral filling in the gaps unraveling an unlikely and unrealistic prospect of superhuman truth, but “Phobic’s” off-the-cuff pivot is a quick to squander all that’s been built in what’s essentially Bryce Clark’s house of cards to discombobulate an audience with polarizing story principles, rebranding an assayed horror-thriller into rabid conceit.

 

Easily one of the most idiosyncratic and unanticipated films of 2020, “Phobic” induced fear into audiences panic-stricken hearts this past December 15th onto multiple digital platforms courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films, the distributor that brought you “Daniel Isn’t Real” and “Pet.” Brandon Christensen’s tenebrous cinematography is shot on a 6k red epic dragon with ultra definition displaying full range of details in every scene and despite the somber tones created by a slew of gaffer up lighting, we get some really rich natural coloring, even in the baby blue eyes of Ernie Lively, when Christensen isn’t blue or red tinting the lens to underscore the killer’s aftermath crime scene. While the cinematography is good, the editing can be pestilent expression of style to represent Riley’s sporadic and continuous reliving of a reoccurring memory. The stock score is just that set on autoplay for nearly the length of the 81 minute runtime with engineered eruptions in the pitch to denote the jump scares. There were no bonus features included with the digital screener nor were there any bonus scenes during or after the credits. The bland acting hurts “Phobic’s” exploration of the psychological symbiotic energies between that of the mind and body, but the film boils down to have a fascinating perspective on the detective thriller by reshaping the surface with bold expectations of an uncharacteristic, dormant fear free all.

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