It's Getting Weird In Here [3 of 4]/ FRIGHTFEST 2015 [Review of SUN CHOKE]
PLOT SPOILERS ARE IN THIS REVIEW - ONLY READ IF YOU HAVE SEEN THE MOVIE @ FRIGHTFEST 2015!!
It's Saturday at the VUE Cinema in Leicester Square and I had high expectations for Sun Choke, mainly due to the terrific cast for this one.
The story, I'd heard from advance word, is striking, shocking and occasionally oblique. One of those films where you have to watch and fill in the blanks yourself - a join the dots kind of movie experience. And this turned out to be the case. Over the last week, post-festival, the film has grown on me (it had a pretty heavy impact to begin with) and themes became clearer. (But not altogether totally clear I'm glad to say!)
PLOT SPOILERS SUNBATHING BELOW - WATCH BEFORE READING!
A young woman (Janie) is kept as a virtual captive in her own family home, while her dad is away (probably for good) by a new age healer of some kind (mad, bad Irma) whose methods (cavity searching, selective memory recall and electric shock dog collars, let alone calling the poor girl Margo) are bizarre, even for L.A.
Janie/ Margo is allowed out one morning, with (unseen) dad's permission as she's been "doing so well lately" (clearly movie talk for "about to go ape") and on her first day on walkabout spots a pretty young girl (called Savannah) driving past. Janie identifies Savannah as her alter ego/ object of desire/ long lost sister - if you want to know exactly what, you'd better ask Janie herself (and prepare to die horribly if you do!).
Savannah is Janie's latest obsession and promptly sets out to stalk her/ screw the girl's boyfriend, before going home to surrogate mummy for more of that needle and dog leash therapy she dreads (or even more worryingly - maybe welcomes). All hell's going to break loose when Janie takes her affection for hiding out in Savannah's house and for taking showers in the girl's bathroom (oh, and sharing a bed with her boyfriend for a very brief encounter) a little too far.
Ok, a LOT too far . .
At the Q&A after the screening, with newish director Ben Cresciman, a lot of directors whose work may have inspired this movie are mentioned (Bergman/ Altman/ Polanski) and it's not denied, but welcomed by the man himself.
The lush, sun-drenched cinematography (a horror in the light) of Sun Choke adds to the sense of isolation; like being in a desert for days and looking for an oasis. It felt almost like being in Nic Roeg's wonderful outback meanderings in his classic Walkabout (a film that starred Jenny Agutter, who has a certain resemblance to the star of this movie - Sarah Hagan).
The title of Sun Choke, director Cresciman admits at the film's Q&A, just popped into his head while filming in the sunshine - and it stuck! There's lots of weird yoga in the morning sun in this movie and references to being at one with the light flickering on top of swimming pool water, and of course, for Janie, she is drowning in bad memories all the time and suffocated by imprisonment (despite all that sunshine and fresh air) - so I can see where the film's strange title's coming from!
The plot thrust of Sun Choke remains defiantly oblique. We seek answers: what is the background to the nurse; where's Janie's dad (or even - who is he really) and what is the connection between Janie and Savannah (maybe a sister, a stranger - or possibly even her own self)?
Also, more importantly - what kind of trauma did Janie go through in the past to become as hell-bent on chaos and retribution (of sorts; in one case pretty justified) as she clearly now is (a rape is implied, and also played out in flashback).
There's a real sense of malleable menace portrayed in the movie, especially in the self-destructive (or pushed into destruction) character of Janie who you both sympathise with and, at times, fear. Sarah Hagan, exceptional in 2011's 'Jess + Moss' does strong defiant young woman/ tortured wounded soul and seductive object of (most deadly) desire with effortless ease and attracts your attention like a moth to a light (even if you know your wings will get scorched by this girl if you get too close).
I'm bloody terrified of Sarah Hagan in this movie! This still violently blossoming young actress will surely, one day, be acknowledged as one of the leading indie actresses of her generation and a big part of the reason I chose to see this film at FrightFest was because of Hagan being the star - it's good enough a guarantee for me!
All the pivotal female roles here are played with relish, nerve and charisma. Horror legend Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator, From Beyond) is cruel, oddly caring and brutal as new age Irma. Crampton tells the FrightFest audience that she asked the director whether her role is good or evil, only to be told by Cresciman that he wasn't too sure himself about that one - the actress had to pretty much make her own mind up! Crampton is far too familiar with this kind of complex horror role not to make it her own though, and elicits both sympathy and hatred in carefully equally measured doses.
Sara Malakul Lane (star of 2014's Jailbait - and even of 2010's Sharktopus!) is restrained, polite and drop dead (probably slowly; with pain) gorgeous as Savannah. You can see why she becomes an object of wild affection for Janie - I think we were all in that girl's obsessive head space as well for a while. Lane almost steals the show when the film turns around to having Savannah as the hunted; we start to identify more with her character (which had earlier been - cleverly and deliberately - more of an object than an individual).
With gruesome moments of eyelid-clenching gore and fairly explicit sex, this film would shock more (and it still does at times) if it wasn't so prettily shot, languid, obtuse and sparkly. It's as if love and affection and yoga by the pool (strangely enough - not in the nude as you'd expect at Irma's house of pain!) is suddenly filtered through a sun-kissed prism of madness, sex and deadly obsession. It all goes a bit like Polanski's Repulsion. (Oh damn! I just said the P word . . ) But it's not all out exploitation this film is after, and relies on atmosphere as well as brief, intense bursts of shock (and a couple of especially nasty, extraordinary moments of violence - a long smash and a quick slash, if you want to get specific).
This contrast between inner darkness (of the mind) and outside light (sunshine representing freedom - but also horror; the light being easily as dangerous as the darkness) does offer something defiantly different; eschews traditional Hollywood ways of thinking. There's perhaps not enough frightfulness on offer to firmly stamp this movie as a horror film as such; it's more of an intense, dark and doomy character study and self-destructive sex thriller at heart. In fact, this film could even be the starker, slightly sunnier (visually) love child of Jennifer Jason Leigh-starring female obsession movie Single White Female (1992). Or even a more brutal, clinical version of 2012's archly stylised 'Starlet' that gave a sexy, youthful edge to meditations on old age.
Anyway, there's a decent amount of provocation in Sun Choke to make it one of the more offbeat entries at 2015's London FrightFest and is an often unsettling and wince-inducing meditation on clinical loneliness, obsession and - perhaps - a whole lot of repressed desire (hint: don't be a man and have sex with Janie/ Margo, even if she does knock on your door in the middle of the night and start snogging your face off!).
The way the whole recent popular horror genre of so-called 'torture porn' is turned on its (sawn-off) head in Sun Choke to have a woman stalking a woman (and terrorising that same woman - but only after having already been terrorised herself by another, older woman, for most of her young life) is clever and cool; subverting the erotic thriller's familiar staples.
If Sun Choke is linked to the 'torture porn' genre at all, it does so by being an all-girl affair. I'm not sure if that's negative empowering, or what quite! All I do know is that men are rapidly dismissed in this movie and are mainly stupid and die. So do women, but they're not stupid.
'Sun Choke' is a sinister and disturbing indie edgy showcase for a superb killer cast. You should, after watching this movie, now go and see the three girls of Sun Choke in these upcoming movies . . .
Sara Malakul Lane in SHARK LAKE (rather brilliantly, alongside Dolph Lundgren) and SCOUTS GUIDE TO THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE; Sarah Hagan in 'Idaho end of days and escape to the woods' CHILDREN and Barbara Crampton in the drop dead promising DEATH HOUSE (with horror legends Robert Englund, Danny Trejo, Kane Hodder, Dee Wallace, Gunnar Hansen, Camille Keaton, Bill Moseley and Michael Berryman) that will possibly be the sole film screening at next year's FrightFest as well as have the longest Q&A in the history of the festival!
Sun Choke is decidedly quirky and defiantly crazed with a bittersweet heart and a mesmeric role for Sarah Hagan that keeps things together - like loosely bound stitching coming loose on an open wound.
mark gordon palmer
Seat at the Back - Cinema Magazine