25th Aug2015

Frightfest 2015: ‘Sun Choke’ Review

by Phil Wheat

Stars: Sarah Hagan, Barbara Crampton, Sara Malakul Lane, Evan Jones, Jim Boeven | Written and Directed by Ben Cresciman

sunchoke-cast

One of four films at this years Frightfest to feature 80s horror icon Barbara Crampton (the others being We Are Still Here, Road Games and Tales of Halloween), Sun Choke stars the wonderful Sarah Hagan, who many will remember from TV shows like Freaks and Geeks and Buffy the Vampire Slayer – where she played one of the potential slayers, Amanda, Here Hagan channels that same sweet, shy persona with an underlying edge she had in Buffy. However unlike that TV show, where that edge would ultimately channel itself into a heroic vampire slaying role, the underlying edge here is more of the unhinged kind – you literally spend the entire movie just waiting for her character Janie to snap.

You see Janie is recovering from a violent psychotic break, subjected each day to a bizarre holistic health and wellness regimen designed and enforced by her lifelong nanny and caretaker Irma (Crampton). Finally granted permission to leave her house, Janie develops an obsession with Savannah (Lane) to whom she feels an inexplicable yet profound connection. The obsession turns increasingly invasive, and wedges all three women into an ever-tightening, and progressively terrifying, struggle for control.

Fatal Attraction, Single White Female, the idea of obsessive women in horror is nothing new yet somehow writer/director Ben Cresciman manages to craft a take on this particular theme that feels unlike anything that has come before. Maybe it’s the abstract visuals, reminiscent of Italian giallo; or the sterile Lynchian feel of Janie’s existence – it doesn’t hurt that her home set in the Hollywood hills, giving it a Mullholland Drive vibe; or maybe its the fact this film is at once beautiful and horrifying, a dichotomy of imagery and story that gives us a window into the bigger picture of Janie’s story but never really gives us any insight into what that story is.

Oddly that’s also the most satisfying thing about Sun Choke. As an audience we not given any context to proceedings beyond the narrative we are being presented with, and that narrative is being told by someone who clearly has psychological problems. So are we to take what we see as the fevered dreams of a psychopath?  Or is it a window in a mad woman’s mind? Or are we witnessing the obsessive psychological torture, and subsequent breakdown, of a woman by her “carer”? We never really know. Yet we don’t need to.

Seemingly inspired by David Lynch’s ouevre, Cresciman has crafter a story that deliberately seeks to provoke a response from the audience. It is certainly not a film that lets the audience sit back and be spoon feed the story, it demands that the audiences own experiences and opinions inform their interpretation of what we’re seeing. And can I just say what we’re seeing is marked by some gorgeous cinematography from Mathew Rudenberg (just check out that image above as an example) – whose visual style here is worlds apart from the comedy shows, like Blue Mountain State and Hard Times of RJ Berger, that he previously worked on.

Said interpretation maybe revulsion at the actions of Crampton’s Irma, who seemingly revels in the control she has over Janie, with a methodology that is taken from The Boys From Brazil’s playbook; repulsion at the films gloriously excessive moments, including a love scene that will make all men very wary of one night stands; or even pathos. For whilst Janie is clearly troubled there’s still something oddly loveable about her character. And even when she’s at her most psychotic  you still have to wonder if, had she been given the right help, could everything have been avoided? Is this, in the end, all Irma’s fault? The way in which Janie reflects her treatment, and herself, in her interactions with Savannah would seem to point that way. But then again its all open to personal interpretation… Which could make Sun Choke one of Frightfest 2015′s most devise movies.

***** 5/5

Sun Choke has its European Premiere at Frightfest on Saturday 29th August at 9pm in Discovery Screen 1

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