J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, August 05, 2016

Sun Choke: California Crazy

Holistic-organic medicine is not enough for a tough case like the mysterious Janie. She really requires hardcore anti-psychotic drugs. It is not like she has much of a personality to water-down. Unfortunately, her minder prefers more Californian treatments. The electrified dog collar is maybe not such a bad idea, but it comes as too little, too late in Ben Cresciman’s weirdly intimate horror film Sun Choke (trailer here), which opens today in Los Angeles.

Evidently, Janie has had “incidents” in the past, but Cresciman plays it coy with respects to the details, as he does with all backstory in general. Apparently, Janie has been under the care of Irma, a longtime family servant (perhaps a former nurse or nanny) for several years, because her father, who always seems to be abroad on business, has essentially given up on her. Believing the yoga is finally yielding positive results, Irma decides to reward Janie with some unsupervised time outside of the house.

Unfortunately, Janie immediately develops a psychotic fixation on Savannah, an underemployed actress with an active love life. Soon she is stalking the young woman, breaking into her apartment, and violently targeting her latest lover. Sensing Janie’s relapse, Irma unleashes a severe battery of behavior modifying treatments, but her charge is too far gone.

Sun Choke is a deliberately discomfiting film in the Polanski tradition. Much of it is deceptively quiet and stiflingly closely observed, but there is always a palpable threat of violence following Janie like her shadow. It mostly works, thanks in large measure to its terrific primary trio.

1980s “scream queen” Barbara Crampton demonstrates why she is busy as ever these days, with her complex, scary but not completely unsympathetic turn as Irma. Sara Malakul Lane is poised to become a scream queen successor for the 2010s, following up genre-friendly work in Pernicious and Shortwave with her grounded and sympathetically vulnerable portrayal of Savanah. In the showcase role, Sarah Hagen’s Janie is so utterly squirrely, she unnerves the audience whenever she is on-screen.

Choke is a hard film to love, but genre fans will immediately respect Cresciman’s vision and his command of mood and mise-en-scene. He maintains a tight focus not so far removed from the one-set, limited-character stage thriller, a la Death Trap or Wait Until Dark, except Choke is more ambiguous in all respects. Intriguing, somewhat demanding, but rewarding for the bold and broad-minded, Sun Choke opens today (8/5) in Los Angeles, at the Arena Cinema.

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