The IMDB synopsis for Ben Cresciman’s Sun Choke is brief but striking: “Janie’s just trying to get well.” While that might seem unnecessarily oblique, it’s really a very good entrance into this striking, assured and utterly beguiling psychological study.
Sarah Hagan (Freaks And Geeks, Buffy The Vampire Slayer) is Janie, who lives with the seemingly well-intentioned Irma (Barbara Crampton). Together, they are working to overcome some kind of unnamed mental disorder that Janie is suffering from. It’s hard work, and often unpleasant. Just what is Janie trying to recover from? What happens if she doesn’t?
For its first half, Sun Choke is largely confined to the bright, airy, but cold LA home where Janie and Irma spend their time. Casting Hagan is a very clever choice, as the film uses the innocent face that worked so well in her roles as a goody-two-shoes on TV for an entirely different purpose. Hagan wins us over quickly, especially as it becomes clear that Irma’s methods and motives may not be entirely benevolent, but she gives us plenty of hints that Irma’s right to be scared of what Janie is capable of.
It’s an excellent performance, and she’s very well supported by Crampton, who brings a brittle iciness to Irma, rewarding Janie’s good behavior with snippets of conversations she’s had with the girl’s father and punishing her with increasing inventiveness, even as we wonder exactly what their connection is.
As Janie “improves,” she begins to venture out of her house and becomes fixated on Savannah (Sara Malakul Lane). Hagan plays Janie’s deterioration beautifully, as Cresciman keeps a firm grip on the film’s pace, slowly revealing what exactly Janie might be looking for.
There’s never a sense that anything is being rushed, Sun Choke teases out clues, details, incidents and revelations at a deliberate speed. Films paying homage to Kubrick are hardly uncommon, but few are as striking as this. We’re plunged into a fractured mind, with its fears and obsessions. Sudden sharp shocks are contrasted with beautiful cinematography, moments of giddy freedom are followed by severe punishment, and it’s decidedly powerful stuff. It all builds to a strong jolt of a finale which offers as many questions as it does answers, and as the credits roll you will be left with the desire to see it again.
This review of Sun Choke comes from the 2015 Film4 FrightFest. The film does not currently have a UK release date. Read more about the latest horror movies in the new issue of SciFiNow.