In this hide-and-seek suspense story, a usually capable woman is put on the back foot when she’s taunted by a ghostly adversary that turns out to be anything but supernatural.
“I’ll be eight minutes, tops,” says frazzled single mother and former Royal Marine Commando Sam, as she makes the foolhardy, fateful decision to leave her feverish five-month-old at home while she nips out for some medicine. When Sam is abducted and wakes up in a seemingly deserted industrial estate, the pressure is on to find an exit and get back to her baby.
Sam isn’t alone here. The industrial estate? That’ll be a military-hardware factory that produces all manner of bleeding-edge equipment, including autonomous gun-toting drones and, as Sam soon discovers, quantum stealth suits, which manipulate light waves to render their wearer invisible to the naked eye. Along with a long list of bad intentions, Sam’s captor has access to both.
Director Justin Edgar has set himself up with a simple-sounding concept that requires all kinds of camera trickery, CGI and clever editing in order to realize. But it’s his lead, Rebecca Rogers, who does all the heavy lifting. Sidled with the tough task of having to act to nothing and believably sell the bodily manipulation suffered unto her by an unseen enemy, Rogers does as good a job as possible, while also convincing us of Sam’s vulnerability, unwillingness to admit her fear, and her eventual conquest of it. Screen International agrees: Rogers’ performance was enough to put her on the five-person shortlist for its 2019 Genre Rising Star award.
With Sam experienced in combat and field operations, this is a classic case of a bully who picks the wrong person to persecute. She must rely on her expertise to outwit her concealed opponent and give her the best chance of survival. But aside from one particularly explosive scenario, we don’t bear witness to the best bits of Sam’s skillset. We see her being assertive and staying calm, both vital qualities in life-or-death situations, but those traits are less exciting to audiences than her ability to jury-rig booby traps and elaborate distractions.
The odds are evened when Sam finds a way to detect her attacker. After discovering that his stealth suit can’t hide him from the camera, Sam wanders the warehouse holding her iPhone aloft, with the film occasionally cutting in to its viewpoint. It’s a fun conceit, often used in found-footage flicks and perfected by Jonathan Demme in the heart-stoppingly suspenseful night-vision sequence from The Silence of the Lambs. Through it, Stalked conjures moments of tension that are evocative of videogames, particularly Japanese survival spook-em-up Fatal Frame, in which the player must equip the camera, which shifts the perspective from a comfortable third-person to an oh-my-god-make-it-stop first-person, in order to see the roving ghosts. Stalked can’t quite muster the incalculable fear of Lambs or the player-directed dread of Frame but it does an admirable job given its limited resources.
The reveal of Sam’s foe also reveals one of the film’s minor faults. Her assailant moves in an inexplicably robotic manner and seems to have appalling peripheral vision, failing to spot Sam even when she’s hovering in his eyeline. These are trivial complaints, however, compared to his dialogue, which has been slathered in enough effects to render it practically unintelligible and makes for a few confusing sequences.
There’s a little too much toing and froing in this cat-and-mouse table-turner and its midway point features a deux ex machina so conspicuous that it seems certain to be a trap, dream or delusion. But to its credit, Stalked mercifully avoids the obvious twists and its antagonist is given satisfactory motive. This is a well-handled thriller that rarely loses sight of its goals, and will have you, if not exactly biting your nails, then at least admiring its moxy. Rogers and Edgar are ones to watch.
Movie Score: 3/5