My notes on Hurt, which screened at the Fantasia Festival.
I was very taken with writer-director Sonny Mallhi’s debut feature Anguish – a low-key possession drama with a feel for real, tangled relationships and a particularly American sense of being adrift in a crumbling society. Mellhi has worked solidly in genre as a producer – with credits on Possession, The Strangers, The Roommate, House at the End of the Street, The Monster, Hell is Where the Hurt Is, and the remakes of Shutter and Oldboy – and has delivered a pair of follow-ups to Anguish inside a year. I’ve not yet seen Family Blood, his take on vampire movies, but Hurt — made for the Blumhouse genre shingle – is another striking, unconventional film which covers old, bloodied ground.
It’s Halloween … a masked killer stalks a small community … and it’s, as we are repeatedly told, based on a true story … but this is by no means a conventional stalk and slash picture. It opens as if it were going to be the horror version of Slacker, with a chain of stories and anecdotes passing from character to character – beginning with an extract from a horror film in which victims are menaced by a baby-masked goon, then following a couple of kids trick-or-treating around a small Texas town … but then settles on a focus character in Rose (Emily Van Raay), a young woman in a rose-marked mask whose trick or treat schtick is so disturbing that kids flee screaming and never make it through the woods to her sister Lily’s house, where the less confrontational woman (Stephanie Moran) just waits in a witch hat with a bowl of uneaten candy. The slight rift between the sisters is a personality issue, but has a lot to do with the fact that Rose’s husband Tommy (Andrew Creer) is just back from the services with an untreated case of simmering PTSD – the sort that might prompt him to put on a mask and become a horror movie murderer – while Lily’s husband Mark (Bradley Hamilton) is an uncomplicated, amiable guy who just wants the four of them to have fun at the local haunted hayride.
As far back as Halloween, horror films with this holiday setting have made great play of the fact that with so many dressed-up jokesters around it’s easy for real horrors to take place without anyone except the victims noticing. This seesaws back and forth between moods, with the film taking a darker, cruder tone (including some distressing barbed wire bondage) as it seemingly follows Tommy’s descent into all-out madness triggered by the jump-scare antics of the town’s holiday horror attraction and his game of pulling Rose into his fantasy as a potential final girl/executioner. Mallhi, who co-scripted with Solomon Gray, salts the set-up with clues, keeping back a major twist or two for the last reel, well after the movie appears to have settled into its groove.
The four leads are all excellent, underplaying effectively while letting the edginess show in a family group who don’t quite get on but also aren’t the squabbling, insult-tossing, unpleasant caricatures too many spam-in-a-cabin slashers mistake for characterisation. Van Raay, in particular, does a great deal with an unusual horror heroine role. Like Anguish, it’s not rollercoaster-paced and gains emotional momentum from moments of quiet desolation before it gets to its serious, upsetting scary business.