By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Nicholas Wilder, Tristan Risk and Dee Wallace
Written and directed by Elias
Freestyle Digital Media
With his feature writing/directing debut GUT, as well as PHOBIA and DARK, which he produced—also scripting the latter—Elias has built up a notable filmography of slow-burn (and monomonikered) independent horror movies. He adds another creepy success to his résumé with AYLA, with a change of scene and less viscera than GUT and a similar creep-under-your-skin mood.
Now available on VOD, AYLA sees Elias traveling from the New York-area haunts of his previous productions to the gloomy climes of the Seattle area. Nicholas Wilder, who played GUT’s thrill-seeking Dan, makes an effective change of pace as the recessive Elton, who has never gotten over the death of his sister Ayla when they were both young children. Obsessed by the loss, he has visions of Ayla at the age she would have been had she survived, which distracts him from his relationship with the living and supportive Alex (Sarah Schoofs, a regular in Elias’ films).
Then a sojourn into the woods near the house where he grew up leads Ayla to be “born” into his life as a grown woman (Tristan Risk from AMERICAN MARY and THE EDITOR). She’s mute, and not at all well—given to throwing up icky fluids—but as she is the realization of Elton’s desire to have his sister back, his affection for her is wholehearted, and becomes disturbing and potentially dangerous.
A combination of psychological disturbance and occasional squirmy body horror, AYLA is above all a portrait of grief so intense that it apparently manifests the object of that sadness. For a while, Elias has us wondering: Is Ayla real, or does she exist only in Elton’s fractured mind? A lengthy scene in which he takes Ayla to see his family, including his occult-practicing mom (a nicely layered turn by Dee Wallace) is well-modulated to suggest that one possibility is the case, and then the other. Here and throughout AYLA, there’s a teasing ambiguity to Elias’ approach that forms the center of the movie’s tension; as frank as the filmmaker is when it comes to the sporadic sexual encounters (between Elton and both Alex and Ayla) and gross-outs, he’s not principally after fleshy or grisly thrills here.
Above all, the horror in AYLA is that of human vulnerability, in which emotion can breed quiet but destructive monsters. In the end, Ayla’s exact nature isn’t really the point; the true focus is what her presence means to and reveals about Elton’s damaged psyche. As such, it will confound those seeking traditional horror-film scares, while satisfying and intriguing those seeking a consistent, discomfiting atmosphere. That ambience is bolstered by Jeremy Berg’s somber cinematography and the tingly piano score by Chvad SB (a.k.a. Chad Bernhard), as well as the performances of Wilder and Risk. The former makes you feel Elton’s emotional pain and fixation on Ayla, and Risk does a lot with no dialogue, bringing an aura of true otherworldliness to her mysterious role. Brief appearances by the busy Bill Oberst Jr. as a couple of distinct motel managers add to the oddness of AYLA, which will be as alluring to receptive viewers as its title character is to Elton.