Written and directed by Ben Cresciman, Sun Choke centres on Janie (Sarah Hagan), who is recovering from a violent psychotic breakdown and is subjected to a bizarre daily health regime by her lifelong “nanny” Irma (Barbara Crampton). Once Irma decides that Janie is well enough to leave the house, Janie instantly becomes obsessed with Savannah (Sara Malakul Lane), seeing her almost as a fantasied projection of herself. It’s through this, that Janie’s grip on reality fades away, and insanity and violence begins to consume her. This is all there is to the actual story as this is one of those unique and different kind of films that is hugely open to interpretation and analysis. However, this is perhaps one of the most unnerving, unsettling and disturbing horror movies currently out there.
Sun Choke is really a psychological arthouse horror movie where the plot takes second place to the acting, atmosphere and visuals, and while this approach would normally make it a classic case of being “all style and no substance”, this is one of those rare times in which that direction kind of works well in execution. This delves into themes of repression, sexuality, identity, and self-control over one’s sanity and sense of reality. This a film about the psychological descent of a mentally warped mind, which, when you get past all of that, there is pretty much the bare bones of a plot, and while the film is set up to be intentionally ambiguous and obscure, it’s somewhat too obscure and this’ll probably frustrate and divide audiences who are more appreciative of a narrative-heavy movie.
The film centres around an unreliable narrator in Janie, and this can make you feel unconnected to the characters since you are following this woman’s actions, and by the end, you’ll be most likely be feeling confused about what’s reality and what’s fantasy. The film is also unapologetically bleak and disturbing in its approach towards sanity/insanity, sex and violence, which produces something of an uncomfortable experience (especially to this reviewer!). Whether you’ll be able to cope through with this, whether you’ll just be unsettled or if it’ll leave you feeling appalled or outraged is really up to the casual viewer, but this is, without a doubt, a chilling experience in almost the same vein as films like Faults or Martha Marcy May Marlene.
Visually, the film is a triumph, and the way in which light and colour is used throughout results in some gorgeous shots that will linger deep in your mind. Performance wise, the three main leads all do a phenomenal job and deserve heaps of praise considering the content involved with this film. Sarah Hagan, in particular, is absolutely captivating, nailing all the various stages of emotions and situations Janie is going through, and as a result, you do feel like you are watching someone checking out of reality. Sara Malakul Lane does a remarkably brave job at being the perfect foil to measure against Janie, offering real, genuine vulnerability and pathos when the grisly events transpire later on. However, the most chilling performance is delivered by genre-veteran Barbara Crampton, whose portrayal of Irma is well judged, effective, and unsettling.
Overall, Sun Choke is an arthouse horror that delves into the realms of psychosis, sex and violence in a manner that is provocative and exciting, yet unnerving and chilling at the same time. The cinematography is fantastic and the performances by the three main leads are flawless. This will probably not be to everyone’s tastes considering the film’s uncomfortable nature and the lack of clarity within the narrative, but this film offers a unique experience that’ll leave you surprised and intrigued.
SUN CHOKE / CERT: TBC / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: BEN CRESCIMAN / STARRING: SARAH HAGAN, BARBARA CRAMPTON, SARA MALAKUL LANE / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW