Have you ever watched a film that just meanders? This isn’t me talking about some slow burn where the climax merits the buildup of tension. I mean the kind of film where you sit watching the movie build and build towards the climax, and you find yourself worrying if the film even has a climax in store for you…Oh, we’re ten minutes into the movie? Something has to start happening, right? Sorta kinda. Now, it’s twenty minutes in–-even a glimmer of spooky goings on? Not yet. Hey, it’s forty minutes–not yet, but hey, they’re at a haunted hayride. Look, pal…fifty? Hey, it’s a slasher movie.
This is the experience I had watching Sonny Mallhi’s HURT, a film that frustrates more than it entertains you. Think back to THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, Tobe Hooper’s classic horror film. Yes, the terror really doesn’t go down until later in the film, but up until that point, there’s still been the sense of menace surrounding the characters–namely the Hitchhiker frightening our leads. The frustrating goddamn thing about HURT is that the film happens while you’ve got your back turned to it and that’s a damn shame because there’s an excellent horror film hiding in there, I just don’t think they found the whole thing, just parts of it.
HURT is the story of Rose (the talented Emily Van Raay) and Tommy (Andrew Creer), a Texas couple whose marriage is tied together by a fraying rope. It’s abundantly clear Tommy is messed up by something approaching post-traumatic stress disorder (he’s returning home from active duty) and Rose isn’t exactly operating with a full six-pack, if you catch my drift (her first scene is tensely twisted). In the periphery, there’s a legend of a killer who murdered some teenagers in the woods some time ago. This is the interesting germ of the film, and frankly the best part of it–the legend of a killer in your hometown and the ghostly effect it has on the town’s residents. That’s the movie I think HURT wants to be and that’s the movie it mostly becomes.
I probably should like HURT more than I ultimately did. It’s a quasi-slasher film that takes place on Halloween night (at least this film has the wherewithal to not show a particular public domain gut muncher on screen–though it’s on a local theatre marquee), partially at a haunted hayride, dripping with atmosphere and doesn’t skimp on the gore. But…I didn’t quite tether to the material in a way that I believe the filmmakers wanted me to. The primary reasoning is that the film is told so abstractly, which doesn’t result in a disorienting experience, but is instead distracting. There are constant jumps in cuts that don’t let you get your bearings on things like geography–the opening scene is a nightmare to follow as well as the haunted hayride part and even the climax–or even allow suspense to build. Scenes where the characters are being stalked are abrupt as opposed to suspenseful as the killer just shows up and kills without warning near the end of the film. Also, the film is so quiet, almost muted, ensuring that you’ll have to turn your volume up full bore just to hear what the characters are saying, praying that you can follow along with them and that a scream doesn’t rocket through the speakers.
At first, I rolled my eyes at the “based on a true story” card that popped up on screen. How could you not? It’s the stock term that filmmakers use when they want to give audiences the willies long after the end credits roll. To the filmmakers’ credit, they twist on the overused element and work to make it fresh for this film: that you’re living out the true story that something is based on. But it’s also the undercooked element of the film, playing almost as a bookend, really, as if they forgot they set up a horror film instead of a dark drama. This is especially vexing given Bryan Bertino’s role as a producer and his landmark film, THE STRANGERS. See, THE STRANGERS set up the drama and horror balance perfectly. But then MOCKINGBIRD, Bertino’s follow-up, clumsily waddled into the horror elements and made it a misfire. This is completely fine if you want a dark drama with horror elements. But if you try to mix the two, make sure it’s a potent mix. What should be an emotionally resonant climax, using the echoes of the past to reverberate through the present, fail to come off as well as the filmmaker would like it to. I didn’t feel the resonance of the ending.
I don’t want to give the impression it’s all bad, because it’s not really at all. The whole film is dripping with atmosphere and tense to boot. The farmhouse-set climax is equally creepy and gory, and feels just grueling enough to put audiences in a nervous frame of mind. And kudos have to be given to the filmmakers for setting the scariest and most intense part of their film during the daylight hours and still making it just as creepy. The cat and mouse game between the killer and Rose is hair-raising and an appropriate analog to the haunted hayride tapestry she braved earlier in the night. The shots of the killer standing in an open field in broad daylight are hair-raising as all get out.
This is why the buildup is so infuriating, because we know the filmmakers can scare. There are little moments peppered throughout that show these receipts. This also makes it the rare horror film to climax on November 1st as well. But it’s tragically too little, too late and by the time the admittedly shocking climax hits the viewer, it’s met with a shrug. I spent less time being enveloped in the twist at the end and more time wondering why it was even happening in the first place. This is a grand misstep and when the film ended on a dark note, I felt like I’d missed something integral. Personally, I don’t know that I’d missed anything at all. The frustrating part of any horror film is not knowing why it’s happening. To clarify, we don’t need to know why Michael Myers is trying to kill Laurie Strode, or why Leatherface and his clan are raring to fix some human vittles, but if the film wants to tell us that there’s a reason and then go about telling us the reason in the most obfuscating way possible, that’s damned frustrating.
The more distance I put between myself and HURT, I find myself liking the film more. But the real downer is that I wish I felt that way while watching the film. It’s a film that some may like, perhaps they’ll jive to the disjointed way that Mallhi tells his story. It’s a film they may dislike; perhaps they won’t jive to the disjoined way that Mallhi tells his story. Either way, I want to watch it again and hope that I see the thing in the film that the filmmakers want me to see. Maybe it’s there and maybe it’s not. Sometimes films are a mix and we have to relegate them to a loss. It’s okay. But I truly want people to dig into it on their own and see if there’s something underneath the surface.
Nathan Smith (@madmanmarz85)