True Fiction is incredibly true to its title, as writer/director Braden Croft blurs the line between what’s real and what’s not, for both the film’s protagonist and the audience, creating an interesting, but an often confusing mind game. The film is essentially Misery, but in reverse. The film follows an aspiring writer, Avery (Sara Garcia), who works in a library, but is soon hired for the job of a lifetime: the assistant to her favorite horror fiction writer, Caleb Conrad (John Cassini). Much like The Shinning’s Jack Torrance, Caleb does his best work isolated in the mountains. The film is very Stephen King-esque in style and substance, and it’s no surprise that this dream job turns out to be a nightmare.
Upon first arriving at this cabin in the woods, Avery is told that she can’t keep her phone in order to avoid distraction. (A first sign that something is definitely up.) The production design packs definite horror vibes, as Avery lands in a home that feels more like a lair. With its drapery of cold blues and blood reds, mysterious locked doors, and a suit of armor that stands beside a grand fireplace, it’s a modern home for a Dracula. The monster of this story is a has-been writer. He’s a man so desperate in his search for validity that he will go to even the most frightful lengths to achieve it. And, of course, if it means her idol will write again, then Avery is a willing participant in his game.
Caleb asks Avery to play a game—a game of fear. He wants to study true fear and learn how to control it in order to create a work that is sincere. It’s a strange narrative concept to have a writer try to create a horror work of non-fiction. It’s true crime, but at the same time fictional. Yes, it is as confusing as it sounds, and introducing that concept makes for an unenjoyable first half. Caleb’s experimentation and manipulation of the human mind and body is something familiar to the genre with films like The Skin I Live In and Frankenstein, for example. He conducts an in-depth analysis of Avery’s personality through various experiments that will, no doubt, leave horrific scars on her, both mentally and physically. He manipulates her, using her past traumas, paranoias, suspicions, and doubts to gaslight her into questioning her sanity. The home begins to appear like a haunted house attraction. Avery starts to hear things like ghostly voices and see things like corpses under her bed or a masked murdered wielding a machete. Caleb wants to mess with her head, just as the director wants to do to the audience, and both are left in the dark as to what part of the narrative is fiction and which is not.
Despite the fact that True Fiction is often quite baffling, leaves many questions unanswered, and has strange dialogue choices that come out of left field, it has a nail-biting intensity as a good hour of the film is just Avery desperately trying to survive and then convincing herself of her own sanity and seeking revenge. This is a film that takes more importance in its characters than actual scares, and the result is an explosive combination thanks to the prowess of both Garcia and Cassini. Garcia has the makings of a big star, as she unleashes her own bloody and vengeful game in an attempt at ending Caleb’s own twisted one. It feels like Funny Games mixed with Ready or Not. It’s a film that combines many elements of the horror genre to emphasize the warning that you should never meet your heroes.
Movie Score: 3/5