New Horror Releases: Bethany (2017) - Reviewed

For those unaware, writer and director James Cullen Bressack has been a highly prolific indie horror filmmaker for several years now. His output by the age of twenty five has been nothing short of impressive, with over thirty writing and directing credits listed on IMDb, and almost fifty credits as a producer. John Carpenter had only made one feature length motion picture by the time he was twenty five. Horror fans may be familiar with the titles My Pure Joy, Hate Crime, Pernicious, and the popular found footage film To Jennifer (shot on an iPhone 5). Bressack’s new feature Bethany is being dubbed “a real American horror story” and it is being distributed by Uncork’d Entertainment in theaters and VOD on April 7, 2017.

Claire (Stephanie Estes) and her husband (Zach Ward) move into her childhood home, opening up old wounds and traumatic memories of her mother’s abusive behavior. When her childhood imaginary friend Bethany starts haunting her, the question becomes whether she is just mentally ill or is truly being haunted. Bethany is essentially a slow burn Hitchcockian psychological thriller that blends elements of body horror, Mommy Dearest style abuse, and modern ghost stories like The Ring. It nearly achieves pure brilliance, firing on all cylinders in the first two acts. Some missteps along the way result in a good movie that could have been a great one.

The psychological aspect of the story is superb, with every facet making the viewer question Claire’s mental faculty, what is taking place around her, and whether she can trust the people surrounding her. The themes that are tackled are dark and grounded in reality, focusing on mental illness and parental abuse. The images that Claire sees could easily be a result of a condition that she has from whatever condition she suffers from, or there could be some other explanation. These psychological issues are reinforced through a combination of dialogue, the actor’s performances, camera shots, music and sound effects, and editing.

The acting is phenomenal and the performances are beyond expectations. Stephanie Estes is outstanding as Claire, delivering a level of emotional depth that you don’t normally see in an indie horror film. Her facial expressions during dialogue free scenes are powerful. Zach Ward does a respectable job playing opposite of her as the concerned husband, with a slight nuance at times to make him seem questionable. Shannon Doherty is the consummate professional and shows us why she’s been in this business for so long, going all out Mommy Dearest bitch mode. Tom Green is the surprise casting choice and possibly a distracting element of the equation. It’s hard to imagine him not doing something strange or being in anything besides a comedy, which makes him playing a serious character hard to initially accept. He does a decent job and the small amount of comedic dialogue involves a scene with him.

Bressack shows that one of his strengths is making a low budget production look interesting with creative and technically sound camera choices, along with the assistance of his cinematographer John DeFazio. Throughout the picture there is exceptional camera movement, varying camera locations and angles, good close ups, terrific establishing shots, the lighting and shadows add extra mood and atmosphere, and wonderful colors that include the subtle use of blues, yellows, and reds.. There are at least several memorable sequences in the picture due to camera work. Without performing any specific research, there appears to be several shots that pay homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s work as a director. The score from Alex Csillag is a combination of piano and orchestra arrangements, several classical songs, and typical sound effects. It further builds up the depressive environment and makes it feel more like a traditional thriller as opposed to a ghost story, while adding a certain immeasurable production value that may not have been present.

There is enough body horror gore peppered throughout this to satiate horror fans requiring blood and violence, despite it being more of a traditional thriller. They are in fact pretty gruesome, but work for the specific story that is being told. For some, it may too much story and too little gore. One major issue was the decision to use CGI for several effects scenes, which turned out looking extremely low budget and out of place. They may have seemed necessary, but in the end they made the whole picture suffer.

Daddy, would you like some sausage?

The first forty five minutes of this is a psychological thriller masterpiece that resembles the work of Hitchcock, it could easily be transformed into a black and white motion picture and look like it was released in 1960. Several creative miscues with effects and script decisions left me feeling somewhat disappointed, partly because I wanted the third act to take a different route. Had it chosen that other route, I believe it would have been a more successful movie as a traditional psychological thriller in the vein of Hitchcock. That’s not to say that other horror fans will be dissatisfied with the route that Bressack took. Either way, there is no doubt that this is his best feature to date and he has a bright future ahead of him.

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