By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Emily van Raay, Andrew Creer and Stephanie Moran
Directed by Sonny Mallhi
Written by Solomon Gray and Sonny Mallhi
The wilds of Texas have hosted all kinds of horrors ever since Tobe Hooper forever changed the way we look at the Lone Star State back in 1974. Madmen, Satanists and others have rampaged through this territory over the decades, and now a less conspicuous but just as dangerous evil makes its mark in HURT, which evokes deep rural scares to rival the original TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.
Prospective viewers should be advised that these frights are a while in coming, as HURT envelops the audience in character and atmosphere for the first hour—but the wait is worth it. Sonny Mallhi’s third feature, a world premiere at Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival, actually starts in New Edinburgh, IL in 2000, as young people encounter a maniacal threat in another remote landscape. (The movie lensed entirely in Ottawa, with no loss of locational authenticity.) Then a wonderful little bait-and-switch reveal—one tied directly to the movie’s themes—plants us in New Caney, TX on Halloween night, where we spend some hang time with two couples: Rose (Emily van Raay) and Tommy (Andrew Creer), Rose’s sister Lily (Stephanie Moran) and Mark (Bradley Hamilton).
Tommy is a soldier recently returned from combat, which has left him with a solid dose of PTSD. His altered personality is one of a few factors that have driven a wedge between Rose and Lily, and Rose, anxious to reclaim happier times with Tommy, convinces him to join her in attending a local horror-hayride attraction. Unfortunately, surrounding Tommy with staged tableaux of death and bloodshed—which are enthusiastically cheered on by the attendees, including Rose herself—turns out not to be the best idea. But is he triggered enough to commit hideous acts of violence himself? One thing’s for sure as the night wears on: someone is.
There’s an odd, experimental vibe to HURT’s opening scenes, informing us early that the film is going to have a different rhythm from the usual psycho/slasher flick. Mallhi, whose superior debut movie ANGUISH also took the time to immerse us with its people and was better for it, alternates between long, serene takes and tight close-ups, confronting us with the protagonists’ emotions while simultaneously isolating them in a depopulated landscape. When our central couple visit the hayride, it feels like we’re tagging along right with them, surrounded by creatures and carnage, and the lengthy stretch of HURT taking place after sunset really feels like it’s happening at night—deep darkness potentially hiding all sorts of badness. Throughout, Jorel O’Dell’s marvelously expressive cinematography combines with keen use of sound and an eerie score by CJ Johnson and Tom Schraeder to make us feel that, in the words of famous Texan Joe Bob Briggs, anybody can die at any time. Thanks to the naturalistic performances (particular by van Raay, a model making her very creditable acting debut), that possibility becomes one to genuinely dread.
Once the horror truly takes hold, it doesn’t do so in the expected ways; when someone ventures out into the nocturnal woods to look for someone, we don’t get the usual generic “Is someone there?” type of scene. The places it does eventually go are graphic and nasty and seriously disturbing, and when we get to them, we realize how everything that came before was setting us up. HURT is about the culture of violence and horror, and how easy it can be for us to deal with both in a venue where we know they’re fake, while being unable or unprepared to handle true menace or madness stemming from around or within us. Mallhi doesn’t get heavy with his message, nor is HURT the kind of meta movie that wants to chastise us for enjoying the very terrors it’s serving up. It simply shows us a world where evil exists under the cover of a darkness we often willingly enter for entertainment’s sake—and where we’re so used to faux frights, and the reactions to them, that someone can scream for help toward a nearby highway and no one will slow down to help.