We all logically assume that our doctors have our best interests at heart — but what if they didn’t? For example, what if you had some deep-seeded and distressing psychological issues, but instead of trying to make you feel better, your therapist was secretly intent on exacerbating your maladies? Maybe planting little seeds of anxiety without your knowledge? Yikes. It’s a pretty creepy question to consider, and that’s just one of several fascinating facets to be discovered in the terrifying indie thriller entitled Sun Choke.
Janie (Sarah Hagan) has suffered from a wide array of devastating psychological issues over the course of her young life — but thanks to the longtime assistance of her loyal therapist/adopted stepmother Irma (Barbara Crampton), she finally seems to be making small improvements regarding basic human interactions. So, logically Irma decides to give Janie a bit more freedom, which turns out to be a very bad idea indeed. After roaming the streets aimlessly, Janie quickly becomes obsessed with a new “friend” called Savannah (Sara Malakul Lane), which kick-starts a chain of events that includes frequent stalking, psychological torture, and outright murder.
Janie’s story alone makes for a reasonably compelling character study, but it’s the motivation of Irma that elevates Sun Choke at every turn. At first she seems to be little more than an unconventional (and slightly weird) psychologist, but eventually it becomes clear that she’s some sort of demented puppeteer intent on messing with Janie’s mind — but to what end? Why drive an insane woman even more insane? Is there actually a method to Irma’s madness?
Writer/director Ben Cresciman brings all sorts of fascinating contradictions into play. Sun Choke contains some truly horrifying scenes and ideas, yet most of the film is quite lovely to look at. Janie is plainly unhinged, but she’s never really portrayed as the villain of the piece — even when things get really nasty. And while it quickly becomes clear that Irma is up to no good, we’re still offered a glimmer of ambiguity as to why she continues to torment poor Janie. For a movie with only three main characters and a very straightforward premise, this one manages to cover a wide array of real estate, psychologically/subtextually speaking.
Sun Choke is a deep, dark, and emotionally challenging horror film backed by Hagan’s powerhouse lead performance (not to mention the great supporting turns from Crampton and Lane), and an overall sense of “quality control” that one rarely sees in indies of this tax bracket. Whether it’s taken as a novel yet fractured psychological thriller, a slow-burn horror story about one woman’s (guided) descent into dementia, or a dark indictment of empty-headed new-age psycho-babble is up to the viewer — it’s safe to say that Sun Choke works on a variety of unsettling levels.
Next time someone tells you that horror cinema is all hollow-brained nonsense and mindless carnage, feel free to recommend this one. (And then tell them to shut up because they’re stupid.) This is an intricate, disturbing, and oddly beautiful horror film.
4.5 psychologically unreliable burritos out of 5
Screened via the Bruce Campbell Horror Film Festival.