This Is Horror head of film and television Jason Hicks’ rundown of his personal top five films shown at Film Four Frightfest 2015 comes to a close as he reviews his favourite film of the festival — the visually beautiful psychological drama Sun Choke.
“Sun Choke is a tense and sometimes uncomfortable piece of hallucinatory storytelling”
Writer/director Ben Cresciman brilliantly ignores the rules of regular, linear narratives with his second feature to create a beautiful, disorientating and uncompromising avant-garde story of mental illness and claustrophobic control.
In a large home among the sun-lit hills on the outskirts of Los Angeles, Janie (Sarah Hagan) is under the strict control of Irma (Barbara Crampton), who runs her through daily routines of yoga, medication, hypnotherapy, sound aversion and physical check-ups. There appears to be no real method behind these strange set of exercises, and indeed we are never given any true explanation of one, but day after day Irma continues to calmly, but forcibly put Janie through this sadistic regime to, as she says, help and protect her ‘little girl’.
Janie is eventually allowed to leave the claustrophobic confines of this minimalist home on short excursions out on her own, and it is during this time that she begins to imprint her identity on a stranger who she happens across. As Janie begins to live vicariously through the beautiful woman that she has taken to stalking, her strained relationship with Irma begins to crumble along with her psyche until it explodes with horrifying, and extremely brutal results.
With no noticeably defined distinction between what is real and what is not, and with no clear narrative within a timeframe that mixes moments of the now and flashbacks of the past, what Sun Choke so brilliantly does is to force the viewer to confront the confusing and dissociative mental illness that appears to have controlled Janie throughout her life. Repetitive symbolism alludes to issues starting right from Janie’s earliest years as well as the horrors that may have occurred during her past episodes of mental fragility, yet no real explanation is ever given to that past, or indeed the story behind that of her carer who may just be as disturbed as she is.
It’s a confident move from Cresciman to allow this story to unfold with such little explanation, but it is just one of many things that he does to so successfully create a film that stands apart from so many other genre films. Beautifully shot by cinematographer Mathew Rudenberg, Cresciman also has the action take place amid the glaring, Los Angeles sunshine, lending a look to Sun Choke that again spins on the expectations of how a horrifying story should be played out. Indeed, the sunlight is embraced as the horror unfolds, and at times appears to all but be a character of its own as it starkly inhabits Janie’s place of healing.
With daring performances that are superbly played by Crampton and in particular Hagan, Sun Choke is a tense and sometimes uncomfortable piece of hallucinatory storytelling. As beautiful as it is disturbing, it is a film that every fan of inventive genre cinema needs to see.
Director: Ben Cresciman
Starring: Barbara Crampton, Sarah Hagan
Release date: TBC