There won’t be another horror movie released this year that’s anything like Sun Choke, the second feature from writer/director Ben Cresciman. It is a singular film, one that’s less a conventional horror effort than a three-character drama with a tendency to get very, very bloody.
Sarah Hagan of Freaks & Geeks plays Janie, a woman who we’re told is recovering from a psychotic breakdown and who is in the care of her nanny, Irma (Barbara Crampton). The methods by which she is being treated appear… unorthodox, and hardly deter Janie from her psychosis, as she is granted a small amount of independence and uses it to stalk a beautiful woman (Sara Malakul Lane) with whom she feels a strong connection. And then things get weird.
Sun Choke is not a traditional horror movie. It’s much more of a psychodrama that focuses on a possibly unreliable narrator slipping further and further into madness; the film gets crazier right along with her. It is beautifully photographed (by Mathew Rudenberg) and very deliberately paced, repeating certain patterns on a kind of loop designed to place the audience at times in the headspace of its protagonist and at times standing outside her, forced to observe this broken woman passing for “normal” in everyday life, knowing that she is on a path towards self-destruction… or worse. The horror of Sun Choke is the horror of inevitability.
Like last year’s brilliant Starry Eyes, another horror film about a female character in crisis, Sun Choke lives and dies by its central performance. Sarah Hagan has worked consistently since her breakout role as Millie on Freaks & Geeks, but she is a revelation here; her Janie internalizes nearly every single emotion, remaining a puzzle almost until the end credits have rolled—and maybe even beyond that. It is, to use a well-worn expression, a fearless performance, one which is willing to be ugly and weird and sad and scared and, when necessary, terrifying.
Hagan is met every step of the way by genre stalwart Barbara Crampton, who digs into playing a completely different type of role with a fierce poise and sinister calm. There is a tendency on the part of some contemporary horror filmmakers to cast beloved genre actors in modern-day projects as a novelty—a play on our collective nostalgia—but that couldn’t be further from the case here. Crampton is cast because she’s a terrific actress, here giving a terrific performance. The dynamic between the two women, which makes up two-thirds of Sun Choke’s bizarre triangle, is haunting. Mostly for what is left unsaid.
Sun Choke is a desperately sad film, a tragedy of ruined lives and disturbing, abstract beauty. There’s a lot to unpack and it offers no easy answers, but its challenges are deeply rewarding. There are images in the film I won’t soon forget, nor will I shake the power of the performances by Hagan and Crampton. It’s a film easier to admire than it is to enjoy if only for its subject matter and its rawness, but its questions are so compelling and the aesthetics so gorgeous that writer/director Cresciman ensures we are hypnotized even when we know we should look away. It’s a beautiful, bloody bruise.
Movie Score: 4/5