This October, the Telluride Horror Show celebrated 10 years of fine horror programming. Held annually in Telluride, Colorado, this film festival prides itself on bringing an eclectic selection of feature films and shorts from the horror genre. In my third consecutive year of attendance, I navigated the programming guide like a veteran and did not sit through one screening that I hated. Here are my thoughts on two heavily psychological terror journeys, Z and 1BR, two of my favorites from the weekend.
Z: I can attest, from personal experience, that parenting is inherently creepy as hell. Children, specifically, are creepy as hell. The entire time you are shepherding this fledgling life you created, you are doubting every decision, overanalyzing every behavior, and unintentionally passing on your own issues. And this is on a good day.
Brandon Christensen's Z takes this already unnerving and relatable foundation and liberally spreads on the layer of an imaginary friend. In Z, Beth (Keegan Connor Tracy) and Kevin (Sean Rogerson) attempt to deal with their son, Josh (Jett Klyne), after he begins very actively playing with his imaginary friend, Z. He talks to Z as they play; he sets out food to include Z in all his meals. At the same time, Josh’s behavior begins deteriorating rapidly to the point that the other children and parents at his school avoid him completely.
The movie begins typically enough, with the unfurling events leaving you wondering if the mom is overreacting and how you would deal if your child was talking to a grotesque figure drawn on the walls. However, then it deviates from the typical creepy child arc. Instead of leaving Josh and Z at the center of the narrative and the action, the focus shifts to Beth, the mother. Kevin and Josh fade into the background as collateral characters, at best. While this develops Beth’s character, her family becomes little more than devices to further the plot and elicit her reactions.
This perspective shift undoubtedly amplifies the parental empathy, but it also changes the story, restricting all the events through Beth’s angle. The plot points no longer happen to the family as a whole, but more to Beth individually, isolating her in her struggle. While this approach works for Beth’s character, it flattens the other characters and makes it more challenging for the audience to determine what is real. There is no objective rendition, which increases the suspense in waiting for the reveal of what is really happening.
For the most part, I enjoyed this deviation. I could care about Beth enough to forget Kevin and Josh for the most part. The reveal of a linked past between Beth and her son is entirely predictable, but it remains effective. However, the film never explains why Beth has borderline amnesia about the whole part of her childhood. There is a therapist (Stephen McHattie) present to explain her past and explore the obvious mental health angle in the film, yet he is left largely underutilized as another flat plot device. The entire movie rides on Beth—her character and her experiences. It’s enough, but the film could have been more if other aspects were given the same attention.
For a modest budget, the film packs some jump-worthy scares. There is one scene where I was lifting my water bottle to drink, but just held it there because my mouth was hanging ajar for a long minute. There is also a terrifying creature reveal near the middle of the story. These gems infuse the otherwise steady tension with sharp punctuation. By the time the story focused on only Beth and Z, the scenes become tamer, a play at suggested terror and more psychological torment.
For the remainder of the movie, the filmmakers leverage expert suspense crafting to keep the audience engaged and wondering, anxiously waiting to see what is real and what will happen to Beth.
Ultimately, the trailing ending is a bit anti-climactic. I have no objections to where the story went, yet I was somewhat unsatisfied in how it arrived there. The true meat and substance of the movie, including the jaw-dropping moments, reside in the middle, leaving the beginning and even the end a little thin.
Even considering the lean opening and closing around the more dramatic middle, Z worked for me. I related to the mother—damaged and not reacting to her child how she is supposed to. I enjoyed everything that was packed into the arc of the story enough to be able to easily forgive the final resolution. Z takes the relatable terrors of worrying about your child and parenthood itself and spirals it out into a mother’s fight against her own childhood demons.
Movie Score: 3.5/5
1BR: Community is a complicated concept. In horror movies, community most often gets represented more as a cult. Yet the line between cult and community might be a matter of perspective, whether one is on the inside or on the outside, drinking the Kool-Aid or drinking the water. In any case, the dynamic is a fantastic fixation for a psychological horror movie.
In 1BR, Sarah (Nicole Brydon Bloom) flees a complicated and painful relationship with her father to pursue costume design in LA. The mousy, naïve girl stumbles upon the perfect apartment. It is almost too good to be true when she actually lands the place. She even sneaks in her cat, breaking the lease, just to keep it.
While the apartment is great and her neighbors are so friendly and helpful, things quickly begin to decline for Sarah. She is constantly anxious about her neighbors discovering her illegal cat, made worse when she receives hateful notes about her violation. Then strange noises keep her up all night, weakening her by the day. Once Sarah decides to flee her residence, she brutally learns that is no longer an option.
1BR is an entirely psychological experience. The whole story is filtered through a psychological lens. This includes the variety of conditioning and torture techniques used on Sarah to elicit her complacency in the community and also the other community members’ behaviors and responses to the environment. As someone perpetually fascinated with psychology, this captivated me. I could identify with some of the different paradigms being leveraged by the community as well as some of the group behavior dynamics between the characters. The filmmakers clearly knew their material.
1BR begins as a slow burn, wearing the audience down as Sarah is worn down by her initial, passive conditioning. I found myself questioning if the film would ever make that fateful leap over the line into horror. It did. The experience of the film mirrors Sarah’s experience with the community, leading with a gentle introduction before traumatizing you into complacency. On the surface, the film is simplistic and clean, yet ultimately, it is a deeply layered and complex experience.
I asked myself, repeatedly, what I have often asked myself when watching horror. Hell, I wrote a whole book inspired by the very question: “What would I do in this situation? If I was being tortured, would I fight back, or would I wilt under the pain? What kind of victim would I be in the real situation?” As Sarah is conditioned (read: tortured), those same questions danced through my head. Beyond myself, I wondered what she would do next and if her actions were genuine. Was she becoming part of the community?
Also true to life, the community initially seems appealing. The rhetoric is persuasive; the ideas have merit. You can feel yourself being seduced with Sarah, being drawn sympathetically into her struggle. Wouldn’t it be nice if people cared about each other, took care of each other? Until the film reveals what that care and community costs.
1BR brings rich and developed characters to a complex and engaging plot. The measured pace of the opening is rewarded with the thick and layered journey Sarah takes after the sinister reveal.
As Sarah, Bloom largely carries the entire movie. The majority of the scenes fixate solely on her internal struggle through the various conditioning measures and tortures and ultimately her fight to escape the community. I was surprised (and endlessly impressed) to learn during the Q&A with writer/director David Marmor that Bloom signed on to the movie three days before they started shooting. While the research, script, and filmmakers were obviously skilled, they would have all been lost without her strong performance.
Psychological horror almost always wins with me, but 1BR in particular gets it so right.
Movie Score: 4.5/5