“The only thing standing between you and the abyss is me.”
Janie is a young woman cooped up in an expansive modernist home. She appears, at first, almost childish and painfully innocent. But looks can be deceiving in Ben Cresciman’s twisty, disturbing little horror gem Sun Choke.
Sarah Hagan turns in a fierce performance as Janie, an incredibly disturbed woman who is trying to overcome some unspoken trauma of her past. Janie’s recovery is being monitored by her caretaker Irma (Barbara Crampton), who genuinely cares for Janie, yet is far too willing to inflict sadistic punishment upon the young woman if she makes a mistake.
As Janie’s mental health improves, Irma lets her venture out of the house, which might not have been the best idea. Janie spots a stranger named Savannah (Sara Malakul Lane), and becomes obsessed with her. She stalks the young woman around Los Angeles, and even breaks into her house. Cresciman handles all of this in a deliberately obtuse fashion, never giving away just what Janie is up to, or where it’s all leading. It’s this vague nature that gives Sun Choke its deceptive power. The film descends into a sadistic nightmare involving tuning forks, electroshock collars, and psychosexual drama.
Cresciman and cinematographer Mathew Rudenberg film it all in a dreamy, gorgeously sun dappled manner, tricking the audience into a sense of ease. How could anything terrible happen in all that lush sunlight? Yet nasty things are lurking, and as Janie wanders down to a garden and starts pulling earthworms from the dirt, the dread slowly mounts, aided by Bryan Hollon’s moody score.
Anchoring it all is the performance by Hagan, who is constantly in a state of flux in the film. It’s a remarkable and unsettling performance that forces the viewer to both be sympathetic and loathsome of Janie as the horror begins to mount. Crampton, as the deceptively helpful Irma, makes a powerful foil for Hagan and the two actresses play off each other exquisitely.
Sun Choke is a sinister psychological horror film that says so much by saying so little. Cresciman’s script isn’t interested in providing many answers, and that makes the film all the more disturbing. The primary fault in Sun Choke may be that it’s just altogether too unpleasant. This is not an easy film to watch, and you won’t leave it with a particularly sunny disposition. But there’s something to be said for a film that so brazenly isn’t trying to please and kowtow to its audience. Sometimes it’s nice to be a little nasty.