In the Poetics, Aristotle argued that tragedy provided viewers with a catharsis, or ‘cleansing’, of their fear and pity. Ask people today why they watch horror films, and you will typically get a similar response: horror enables us to work through our unresolved emotions and dark drives (chiefly, although not exclusively, fear) in the relatively safe space of the theatre or home. It is certainly a question with which Extremity, directed by Anthony DiBlasi (Missionary, 2013; Last Shift, 2014; Most Likely To Die, 2015) is concerned, as protagonist Allison (Dana Christina) submits herself to ‘extreme haunt’ Perdition – a live horror experience designed to shake up participants both physically and psychologically. “Why are you here?” asks Perdition’s Master of Ceremonies Bob (Chad Rook), hiding beneath a hoodie, mask and voice modifier. “What do you want from us?” asks Perdition employee Phil (J LaRose) – before waterboarding Allison. We might be wondering the same, of both her and ourselves, as the film explores the different effects – some liberating, some less so – of extremity on its voluntary victims.
A disturbed, repeatedly institutionalised young woman with not only a penchant for extreme horror cinema and self-harm, but also an aversion to sexual contact – even from her girlfriend Erica (Nikki Rae Hallow) – Allison certainly has ‘unresolved issues’, particularly of the ‘daddy’ variety. Yet in signing herself over to Perdition against the express advice of her psychiatrist (Chantal Perron), Allison hopes to confront – and to be forever jolted free from – harrowing childhood traumas. So this deeply personalised horror show is all at once ghost train, drill camp, nostalgia (bad) trip and rehabilitation centre, with exposure therapy the order of the day.
“We all wear masks,” Bob tells Allison, “Even you.” Yet as home truths slip in and the masks gradually come off, the question remains what demons Allison may have beneath hers. Patriarchy is about to get cleansed.