James Cullen Bressack returns with his latest film ‘Bethany’, a more ‘mainstream’ style psychological chiller, but, dare I say it, his strongest film to date.
The plot of ‘Bethany’ is quite close to a number of other more recent psychological horrors that in a way I would be worried about underselling the film as a whole for fear of people calling cliché, but here goes nothing. Upon the death of her mother Claire (Stefanie Estes) returns to the family household. Whilst her partner Aaron (Zack Ward) is thrilled (as a family they are struggling financially, and this house is a goldmine), she is not keen. You see, when she was growing up her mother was somewhat fanatical about appearances, strict on regime and there are implied hints of abuse, all of which have led to Claire being somewhat unbalanced in the mental department; that’s not to mention the rather vivid memories of a childhood ‘imaginary’ friend named ‘Bethany’. Back in modern times things become strained as ‘Bethany’ begins to awaken again, taking on a far more malevolent guise than in the past. Is she real, or is she symptomatic of Claire’s degenerating mental state? It’s down to her husband and psychiatrist ‘Dr. Brown’ (Tom Green) to investigate and uncover the truth.
Now it’s no secret that recently there have been a number of successful films which have a female lead teetering on the edge of insanity, but it is a formula that, when it works makes for a really tense and effective horror film. ‘Bethany’ is an effective horror film, but less for the ‘horror’, and more on the character-side of things.
One of the first things you notice, aside from some very sleek cinematography, is the tone of the film. This isn’t a film about sympathy and moping around, of misunderstood heroines shunned by a society that pretend to support, this is a film where the characters are simply having to deal, in a situation which is testing to say the least. Estes performance is solid and consistent, and whist to start with I would say her character is a little high maintenance she really does come into her own once the crazy starts. She really does own these scenes. There is something about her cold delivery which really does leave you wondering just how deep rooted her character’s psychosis really is – and indeed, given the interesting developments shown from her history, they could justifiably run pretty deep! In contrast, her husband, well he never really has a grip. Don’t get me wrong he’s a nice guy, but clearly he hasn’t got a clue and you get the feeling, whilst his sentiment is honourable, he just ‘wants’ things to work out without committing to supporting his wife.
That said, when your wife is seeing hands emerging from walls, needles protruding from her face and shower heads I’m not sure quite how much help anyone would really be!
As with Estes, Ward does a fine job.
Indeed, strong performances and miserable atmosphere would mean very little if there was not delivery in the scares or violence department, and this is where the movie becomes something of a mixed bag. The violence side is great, really raw, effects look amazing. There is a wrist slashing scene about halfway through the film which is satisfyingly visceral and Bressack’s heritage as and ‘indie’ director shines through. Indeed, there are so many other really cool features to this film which set this film apart from ‘studio’ creepers which, to me, just gives it the edge. This of course will be divisive, because without the fluidity and exposition afforded by such films, ‘Bethany’ does require a little patience and demand a little more thought throughout its second act, my two cents worth is that the sequences that follow are all the better for it.
Now I digressed a little there: back to the ‘mixed bag’ comment.
Well here comes my only criticism of the film – the CGI supernatural elements of the film. The odd effects here and there were tolerable, but there are some shots later in the film of the entity (who may or may not be real – avoiding spoilers) which really don’t fit in well with the aesthetics of the movie. I don’t want to speak for other critics here, but I can see this coming up time and time again.
Whilst it is common for the effects to look a ‘bit dodgy’, what I found more crucial was more that they just didn’t fit in well particularly well with the film’s overall vibe – it was harrowingly plausible up to this point. I get it though, and as the film begins to show its hand ‘Bethany’, strays further towards ‘typical’ supernatural chiller territory, but still, as a psychological thriller it was in a class of its own, standing toe to toe with bigger budget releases, the scares just weren’t going to compete.
That’s not to say it isn’t scary, because it has its moments, and again, Bressack shows his influence here too giving us some rather inventive and ‘out of the box’ style scares (as well as some of the tried and tested ones also). In parts the film delivers some decent jolts, but still… there are plenty of films already out there if that’s what you want, whilst great psychological chillers are in short supply.
Overall, however, ‘Bethany’ is most defiantly a solid watch. It mixes a strong psychological horror setup with a more ‘accessible’ conclusion. I have read that Bressack considers this to be his strongest film to date, and from a technical perspective: definitely. Get it on your April watch lists!