When most folks think of “horror films”, they’re typically pondering the suspense and dread generated by knowing things the characters don’t — there’s someone in the attic/in the woods/in the barn, or ninety years ago there was a ritual performed here and legend says demons haunt the site or this book is cursed or…*takes a breath*….well, you get the picture. I’m certainly not saying there’s anything wrong with this (after all, I’d be out of a job if I thought so), just shamelessly leading you into the point that I’m going to make next: One thing that isn’t a frequently-used generator of “horror” stresses is characterization. Sure, the buildup of a lot of antagonists in scare flicks is very important — the drama and suspicion that is generated by Anthony Perkin’s stellar portrayal of Norman Bates in Psycho does wonders for the feelings of both sympathy and an uncomfortable unease we have about the poor guy, but let’s face it — what is the first thing you think of when you think of Psycho? Is it Norman’s innocent-yet-most-creepy conversation with Marion in the parlor? Or is it the shower scene? Be honest…
The point I’m making is that you find very few horror films that rely solely on characterization for their meat and potatoes — there’s almost always some exposition to set the hook that the insight into the characters casts out there to us.
One such film that eschews this formula (and quite well, I might add, at the risk of outrunning my own review) is Jerry J. White III’s freshman feature, The Horror.
Twins Malcolm and Isabell Rademacher have suffered the tragic loss of their parents in a horrendous car accident that Malcolm had the misfortune of witnessing. After the estate is settled, Isabell arranges for her boyfriend, Chris, and on again/off again romantic interest of her brother’s, Annie, to travel with them to the family’s lake house to shut it up and prepare it for vacancy. The twins, having that weird “twin vibe”, aren’t the most adept at socialization outside of each other, and the pair of paramours soon find themselves cut out of the activities and, after a horrifically bad marriage proposal by Chris and equally depressing rejection of feelings by Malcolm for Annie, they depart, leaving the Rademachers to finish their tasks alone. During the night, two masked individuals slip into the house, and after a harrowing struggle the twins manage to subdue one attacker, but the other escapes. Isabell seeks help to move on with her life, but Malcolm seems to dwell on the incident — indeed, he becomes obsessed with finding the mask of the escaped intruder. As Isabell looks on, he falls deeper and deeper into a strange, frightening melancholy…one that can ultimately only have an answer as dark as the obsession itself.
From the outset, I want to tell you all out there that this movie is not what you expect from a horror film, especially one named The Horror. There’s not any gore to speak of, no in-your-face expository scenes, no jump scares — nothing at all, really, that we expect from a horror film. Where the menace lies in this flick is the gradual fall of Malcolm into the arms of psychotic insanity; and it’s beautifully done. The script is spot-on in terms of dialogue and situations and the cinematography is intimate and suitably bleak; this, plus some really outstanding acting on the part of Callie Ott as Isabell and newcomer (and writer) Raymond Creamer as Malcolm, creates a wholly believable story with characters that you feel like you know. There’s nothing over the top or insulting in the descent into madness here, but instead a painstaking, unsettling look at the darkening of a soul — The Horror becomes quite the apt title when you consider it from the perspective of Isabell, having lost her parents to tragedy, and now watching her brother gently slide away from her into madness. Only the last reel of the film has anything we’d typically expect to see in a horror film, and even then it’s left off-screen, the exposition left in our minds — and contextually, it’s a perfect fit.
The movie is a very slow burn, a character study in psychosis with no “payoff” that horror fans are used to — as such, I have to warn that this film will definitely not be for everyone. Slasher fans, gorehounds, or lovers of jump-outta-your-seat moments will not get what they’re looking for here. However, for a truly chilling look at the real-life horror of watching someone you love become something…else, you would be hard-pressed to find better.
Two-fifths of a nickel.
THE HORROR is now available on Digital VHX and limited edition VHS today.
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