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FrightFest review – Ultrasound

Ultrasound (2021)

Screenwriter Conor Steechschulte – adapting his own graphic novel, Generous Bosom – and director Rob Schroeder – producer of Sun Choke and Beyond the Gates – throw in a single wildly out-of-place detail (a tray of hotel breakfast things left out in the rain on a lonely road) early on to signal that we need to pay close attention … it’s not just a bit of self-conscious dreamlike weirdness but an actual clue, which is paid off much later in the film.

The opening seems like a conscious spin on the anecdote Orson Welles called The Immortal Story – regular joe Glen (Vincent Kartheiser), driving home late at night after attending a friend’s wedding, is waylaid by a nailstrip thrown across the road and seeks help at the nearest lit-up house (any horror movie viewer would advise against this).  Arthur (Bob Stephenson), a blubbery chatterbox, invites Glen to spend the night, mixes him drinks with suspect additives that have a hallucinogenic (and aphrodisiac?) effect, and insists he spend the night with his much younger wife Cyndi (Chelsea Lopez).  Months later, with Glen unsure whether he even had sex with Cyndi, Art tracks him down and shows him film footage indicating that the woman is pregnant.  Meanwhile, 1970s conspiracy movie-type electronic eavesdroppers are surveilling Glen and Cyndi – and eventually pounce, fetching them off to an underground complex (formerly used for ageing cheese).  The couple are separated – Glen is now paraplegic and Cyndi may have a phantom pregnancy – and become subjects in an experimental program about the mind-altering effects of ultrasound.  Head scientist Dr Conners (Tunde Adebimpe) has just brought in trauma counselor Shannon (Breeda Wool, of the Mr Mercedes series) to assist, and she has qualms about the ethics of the project.

In a cutaway subplot, Katie (Rainey Qualley) is stashed in a hotel room by her married lover (Chris Gartin), a Congressman who is campaiging for re-election on a family values platform.  Scenes seesaw between Katie’s perspective and objective reality – she doesn’t realise that she’s heavily pregnant and she believes she’s visited by the politician but it’s actually Art, who isn’t quite the same Art Glen and Cyndi are involved with.  The pieces eventually do fit together, after the manner of early Christopher Nolan or M. Night Shyamalan (or recent Shane Carruth or Rian Johnson), but Ultrasound refreshingly lets the audience work out what everyone’s up to without the need for dialogue confirmation.  Clues – like the fourth pledge of the Congressman’s political campaign and the reveal of what Art’s actual job is – are planted and left to germinate.  It’s kept from being a purely intellectual exercise by the performances – Wool is humane and intense, at first making us wonder why Shannon is mixed up in such a shady business, while Stephenson is a roly-poly sad sack comic type who turns out to be terrifying.  It looks terrific, with various layers of reality conveyed by stylised sets and camerawork – and, of course, it benefits from a subtle sound design.

Here’s the FrightFest listing.


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