Writer/director Braden Croft’s True Fiction starts with a flashforward to a snowbound cabin. Hearing through an old audio monitor the muted sounds of a woman in heightened distress being verbally goaded by a man, a figure in a mask grabs a machete, pumps himself up, and heads out the door, clearly meaning bad, bad business.
So when, immediately after the opening title, we see young, innocent ‘aspiring writer’ Avery Malone (Sara Garcia) bumbling her way through an interview to work for established, if washed-up novelist Caleb Conrad (John Cassini), we know that all Avery’s giddy enthusiasm – she is, after all, Caleb’s number one fan – is leading her to an awful predicament. “He needs an assistant, not a writer,” insists one of the interviewers, Alllson (Catherine Gell). “That’s his job.” Desperate, Avery insists, “Anything your client wants me to do – anything – I will do it.” And with that, Avery’s fate is sealed, as she enters a contract and agrees to subordinate her needs to those of another writer – even if she still fantasises about gaining celebrity of her own.
Caleb is a combination of Stephen King and J.D. Salinger – both a prolific horror writer and a complete recluse who makes no public appearances. Though she has read all his books and owns several copies with his signature on them, Avery has no idea even what he looks like. In his large, isolated cabin, Caleb tells Avery that, in order to get his creative juices flowing again, he is going to conduct some research on the subject of fear, and he would like her to be his ‘guinea pig’. As they discuss the shifting boundaries between truth and fiction, artist and individual, and embark upon experiments designed to draw out Avery’s innermost feelings and darkest secrets, she – and we along with her – becomes more and more disoriented as to what is real and what is merely part of Caleb’s game. Confused over her loss of privacy, and increasingly convinced that the two of them are not alone in the house, Avery begins to assert her authority in the fiction that they are writing together, proving that she is perhaps as good a creator of horror, and a crafter of an authorial persona, as her slippery host.
Pitched somewhere between Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960) and Rob Reiner’s Stephen King adaptation Misery (1990), True Fiction is a tense and twisty near two-hander that carefully negotiates the convoluted connections between authorship and imposture in any work of make-believe. As Master and Muse become locked in a battle for control, even for survival, this strange, increasingly scary exploration of the creative process keeps commenting reflexively on the way that gaslighting, manipulation and misdirection lie at horror’s very heart, where everyone wears a mask. What Croft shows is that no matter how well-ordered and predictable – how Apollonian – the plot of a scenario may seem, delusion and madness can quickly take over, unsettling everything with its Dionysian chaos. Somewhere in between these two poles, True Fiction comes into its own, rewriting itself.
True Fiction was seen and reviewed at Arrow Video FrightFest 2019.