Periodically at film festivals, including Screamfest, I will see a movie so blatant in its allegory that my gut reaction is to say “That would probably seem deep…to a teenager.” And then I see something like Therapy, actually made by a teenager, that simply blows everything else away–including my mental stereotyping. The bar has been raised, adults: once you see what then-16-year-old Nathan Ambrosioni has made–and realize that this is in fact his second feature, following 2014’s Hostile–you have no excuse for not raising your game.
The young French writer/director/actor/editor/camera operator (seriously, step up your game, everyone else!) even cannily plays to stereotype at first. Therapy begins with scenes of teens partying in an abandoned building, shot sloppily on handheld Super 8, as if it’s something your kid would do. But gradually it dawns on the viewer that no, this isn’t accidentally crappy filming; it is the point of view of someone, or something, watching. Which only becomes clear once it starts to give chase.
So then you, the viewer, might be thinking, okay, this is a found-footage movie. I guess that’s not too hard for any kid with a camera to make. Except no. Because then we go to a beautifully shot, and deliberately jarringly edited, sequence of a dog leaping in slow motion, and being bothered by a fly. Then yes, a new found-footage story begins (this one shot with both a regular camera and a GoPro), but it’s interspersed with fully cinematic scenes involving the cops who are apparently assembling the film we’ve been seeing. Or rather, films–both the Super8 we saw upfront and the more modern film from a family camping trip were found at the same abandoned building. Ambrosioni here not only shows that he can compose a shot, as the key details he hones in on with the omnipotent camera POV are both artful and to the point; he also evinces a knowledge of horror history, with the interspersing of a contemporary-set movie with the footage being watched by the characters hearkening back to Cannibal Holocaust, often considered to be the original found-footage fright flick.
What ensues would be impressive coming from any director, let alone a teen. Ambrosioni has basically made two quite different movies: one a first-person haunted house walkthrough, the other a modern-day search for missing girls who’ve been abducted by one or more psychopaths. And he has cleverly merged them, so that just when you think a resolution has been reached, the story goes in a whole ‘nother direction. His bogeyman may visually be a cut-rate Michael Myers rip-off, but the atmosphere has been so firmly established by the time he shows up that it does not matter; Rip Taylor could be revealed as the killer by then and we’d still jump in our seats. In the GoPro footage, a cartoonishly graffiti’ed up old building suddenly becomes creepy around every corner thanks to some minimal yet effective practical effects; in the present-day search for those who filmed it, the casual evil lurking in unsuspected locations elicits a more emotional horror.
The title, while appropriate, would be a spoiler to explain, so I suggest you try not to think about it too much. Odds are you’ll be so engrossed in the story that you won’t have to.
5 burritos for this one. Even though I haven’t seen every film at Screamfest 2016, it feels safe to declare this the big winner, in that it’s both a great horror movie and it propels a major new talent forward. If you’re in the Los Angeles area, you can catch it Sunday night, Oct. 23rd at 10 p.m. at the Chinese Theater 6.
Luke Y. Thompson, Nerdist’s weekend editor, will be attempting to step up his game on Twitter. Or maybe not. SQUIRREL!