Posted by Arthur Diner @AfterMovieDiner
Owner of www.aftermoviediner.com - movie-related reviews, podcasts + interviews. Twitter @aftermoviediner or Facebook.com/aftermoviediner
Arthur Diner

I really am not sure where to begin with Sun Choke, Ben Cresciman's frustrating yet haunting independent, psychological horror/thriller.

It begs me to dismiss it as incoherent, pretentious, poorly made, arty drivel but it also demands that I delve deeper, be won over, embrace its ambiguity and relish in its striking images, strong, brave performances and genuinely creepy and unnerving ideas.

It both, in turn, wants me to not understand it, to thumb its nose at me and dance about rejoicing in its own, impenetrable cleverness, slapping its back at stumping and perplexing the cynical, jaded and curmudgeonly film critic in me and it wants to impress me, freak me out, bathe in its acting, light and silence.

Basically it all comes down to the camera work. Sometimes the camera work is lazy, shaky, too close up, shuddering all over the place (like the camera man wants to pee) and other times it's purposeful, still, composed, beautiful and creative.

I am of the school where, if the whole film was shot in that second style, it would be much closer to a masterpiece than it is and whoever is telling or teaching people that shaky camera work during dialogue scenes somehow heightens the tension and drama, should be locked in a wardrobe with Simon Cowell and fed nothing but kale because, guess what, it doesn't.

Sun Choke, to briefly try and summarise the plot, is about Janie (Sarah Hagan, Freaks & Geeks) who, as she apparently recovers from a violent psychotic break, is subjected each day to a bizarre holistic health regiment designed, and enforced, by her lifelong nanny and caretaker Irma (Barbara Crampton, You're Next, Re-Animator). When she seems to make an improvement in the treatment, Irma allows her a little freedom outside her Hollywood Hills home and quickly Janie develops an obsession with a stranger, Savannah (Sara Malakul Lane). The obsession quickly leads to her losing her grip on reality and sanity as the three women are plunged into a climax of madness and violence.

Honestly the plot is not really the point. We are given such bare bones glimpses of it and the script never dares to give voice to what drives our characters and/or who they are beyond the obvious.

It's the belief that underwriting something and leaving just about everything ambiguous and open to interpretation is as powerful and clever as coming up with a satisfying, clear explanation. It also, conveniently allows anything to be the truth, which is sort of a cheap cinematic trick to draw people into 'discussion'.

Only, weirdly, and almost annoyingly, by the time Sun Choke had finished, it had worked. There was just enough of a narrative and just enough engaging, artful, thought-out shots that I had been seduced by the empty madness of it all.

So enough of me wrestling with just what Sun Choke is or why because, honestly, that could go on all night and the more I do it the more I feel like I am playing right into Director and Writer Ben Cresciman's hands.

Here then are the reasons I enjoyed it, because, believe it or not, I did.

Firstly, no examination of the success of Sun Choke is complete without heaping praise on to the actors. The three female leads are perfect in their respective roles. I have long championed Barbara Crampton as more than just an excellent scream queen and of being in possession of some serious acting chops. Here she doesn't disappoint and follows We Are Still Here with another meaty, nuanced performance.

While it's a less 'showy' role than Sarah Hagan's Janie, the part of Savannah, played by Sara Malakul Lane still has its brave and demanding moments. The character's balance of vulnerability and strength is portrayed effortlessly.

Sarah Hagan, then, as Janie not only crawls out from behind the shadow of her Freaks & Geeks persona, she takes the persona and beats it into a mashy, unrecognisable pulp with a rock. Her performance is mostly silent despite a, not completely successful, tantrum sequence but it is complicated, brave, engrossing, daring and you can't tear your eyes away.

While the film, with its choppy editing, flashbacks and fragmented dream/memory sequences doesn't, exactly have a strong narrative drive, in mood, atmosphere and character development the movie definitely starts with a whisper and builds to a crescendo. The person driving and pushing that slow climax, skillfully and with slight of hand, is Sarah Hagan.

The role of Janie is not your standard horror heroine or scream queen but she definitely stands on the shoulders of the Barbara Cramptons, Kelli Maroneys and Linnea Quigleys of the movie world when it comes to performances that aren't afraid to go anywhere, do anything and make absolutely no apologies for it.

Sun Choke packs more mental imagery, fucked up ideas, jaw dropping sequences and general sound and fury into its tight 80 minutes than all the Parasnoremal Activities and The Conjuring of an Exorcism of the Witch in Connecticut can muster in endless sequels and retreads.

It also, when it remembers to put the camera on a tripod and spend more than 30 seconds thinking up a shot, features some beautiful, some haunting and some hauntingly beautiful images.

It doesn't quite have the tension of a We Are Still Here but it has an atmosphere that slowly creeps under your skin, ties up your bones and scarily just wants to hug you all night, humming low in your ear.

If you like your horror with a dose of the psychological and a healthy dollop of arty-fartiness then I would urge you to check out Sun Choke.

As for any conclusions I gleaned by thinking the film over? I would say the quotes that go through my head are 'we all go a little crazy sometimes' and 'they fuck you up, your Mum and Dad'. But that's really just scraping the surface. Have fun with it!

Check out our interview with actress Sarah Hagan and you can rent or buy Sun Choke NOW on iTunes, Amazon and more.