Though set in the early eighties – seemingly just so the protagonist can have a walkman – this atmospheric, brief (76m) psycho-horror item from writer-director A.D. Calvo is rooted in the films of the ‘60s and ‘70s. It takes certain themes and visual/aural effects from Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, John Hancock’s Let’s Scare Jessica to Death and Robert Altman’s Images and 3 Women – but forges its own distinctive storyline, and manages a feel which fits in with more abstruse, arcane and neglected items (like Frederick R. Friedel’s Axe, for instance, or the films of SF Brownrigg). There’s a lot of mileage in this area of cinema, especially when many homages to grindhouse history are so superficial. This doesn’t just cast a few veteran names and hope to trade on leftover affection for Fangoria cover features, but tries to conjure up a specific, strange inner landscape. It has a certain overlap with the way Oz Perkins has been mining a similar vein, but Calvo has his own style. The material might be disturbing and unsettling but I can’t suppress a twinge of joy at hearing a particular sound quirk from Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (whispered voice-over) reused here.
Adele (Erin Wilhelmi), a fragile waif crowded into a house with a grasping Mom (Lainie Ventura) and a leering stepdad, escapes to take up a position as carer/companion for her wealthy aunt Dora (Susan Kellerman), who lives in a Victorian mansion … and turns out to be a severe agoraphobic who never comes out of her room, and communicates only in notes shoved under her door. Adele leaves trays of food for her and tries to abide by her rules, but is swayed to go against her aunt’s ‘strictly no visitors’ policy when she falls in with Beth (Quinn Shephard), an outgoing goth (if that’s a thing) who latches on to her, maybe in a romantic/sexual way (signals are mixed), but also ambiguously as a doppelganger and potential exploiter. Identities meld, irrevocable steps are taken, and we wend our way towards an ending – which features cameos from Kirstin Johansen and Frances Eve as the next generation of this tangle of relationships – that riffs on the way Dan Curtis paid off Burnt Offerings (and Night of Dark Shadows) while outlining its own fresh hell. The plot, as often, is deliberately vague and tentative, which allows for the mindscape of the strange heroine to eclipse anything like narrative.
Its not a conventional horror film, but it has a sense of chilling dread that sticks in the mind – and a couple of perfectly-accomplished sudden scares (including one trick with a mirror that’s a great jump moment, but also a major advance in the storyline: a very rare combination). Wilhelmi carries the film, managing the sort of affect Sissy Spacek had in her weirder 1970s work, but Shephard is impressive too (she brings a rare post-millennium influence, seeming like a homage to Laura Elena Harring in Mulholland Dr) and, with minimal actual screen time, Kellerman is an addition to the honoured ranks of shrieking horror hags.