First off, this is the only FrightFest film this year that made me turn the lights on afterwards.
Written and directed by Jud Cremata – though I’d guess much of the dialogue is improv – this is not quite a one-long-take film since it has a few ellipsis cuts and blurs. Nevertheless, it presents continuous action and its restless camera that tries (by design) to follow too many girls at once (Cremata has a background in reality TV) so the viewer is always on edge about where to look and which corner of the screen a threat might be coming from.
This will be divisive because it doesn’t stick to many of the rules of film storytelling, but it a) orchestrates its terrors expertly, and b) manages a complicated character piece. Interactions among the group that imply a web of relationships that don’t have to be spelled out, with a sense of how teen girl peer groups really work as opposed to the polished fantasy of Mean Girls and many other films. It’s uncomfortable in a Dogme sort of way, as characters trespass on each other’s boundaries and things go awry without bad intentions but just because girls encourage each other or don’t intervene. Early on, cousins Emma (Troy Leigh-Anne Johnson) and Taylor (Isabel May) step into the hall and have a long talk where Taylor is at once coercive and supportive, while various bits of backstory are dropped in throughout the film, with key information delivered at a point convention would say was too late and a couple of major false leads (or are they) about the root cause and the actual nature of what’s going on. Screenwriters would be advised against this because it can be confusing – but out of confusion can rise terror, and the job of a horror movie is to be frightening not to be some ideal of a well-crafted play.
Emma and her younger sister Lilly (Dakota Baccelli) are staying at their cousin’s house after a bereavement, and Taylor’s father (Blake Robbins) – who has his own demons – is passed out drunk on a sofa downstairs. Taylor and three of her friends – bipolar-seeming Madison (Odessa A’zion), laid-back Jess (Brooke Sorenson) and meeker Paige (Jessica Sarah Flaum) – to prank her … invade Emma’s bedroom to prank her. This is ill-timed at best, especially as it emerges that Emma doesn’t know Taylor’s three pals and is instantly uncomfortable with their antics. Too many girls in too small a room, unable to keep quiet or still, are impulsively prone to root through and play with perhaps breakable or dangerous things (and, by implication) people. But they’re not monsters – just kids, who can be spontaneously kind or thoughtful or sweet as often as they pull appalling dick moves. When conversation turns to the spooky house across the road, once owned-by a witchy old lady (connected to the voodoo/fetish dolls that keep turning up) and now inhabited by a new family who have a little-seen teenage daughter called Julie. Madison – who you just know was the one who instigated the creepy-crawling against Emma, perhaps out of sexual curiosity – is suddenly keen on going across the road to scare Julie … a project that, of course, turns out badly.
Again against expectations, the camera doesn’t follow the masked home invaders but stays with Emma, who has severe doubts about the prank – for several reasons, which slip out at odd moments – but has been gently blackmailed into providing the key the girls need to get into the house where they presume Julie is home alone (Taylor has stolen Emma’s phone and only gives it back when the key is handed over). Several girls come back, in distressed state, but we’re also told that Taylor has blithely driven to the airport to pick up her mother … then Emma finds that Lilly is missing, and may have followed the others into unspecified peril.
One of the best ways to make an audience afraid in a horror movie without overreliance on jump scares – and this has a lulu of a jump in the last act – is to depict characters who are convincingly terrified; the range of fear shown by the young but professional cast here is astonishing. We’re not even sure we like any of these people, but their different (always believable) terror is infectious. All that rambling chat, clumsy exposition — which is to say not like smoothly-scripted exposition but a lot like the way you find out about things in real life – and a camera perhaps pointed the wrong way half the time pays off in sustained tension and a commitment to being scary surprisingly unusual in contemporary horror.