This is a first for me but certainly a welcome occurence. I received a request from an actor to watch this film and provide my review. I’m certainly not one to turn down such a request, especially as I’ve worked with this actor in the past. That said, I’ve entered my viewing of this film objectively and impartially and will not hold against him that my miserably bad student film is not listed in his filmography on his IMDB account. Without any further adu, my review for The Suffering.
I’m pretty hard on horror films. Over the past few decades, many horror films have gotten away from telling a concrete story and have instead relied on gore and grotesque violence to sell fear to their intended audiences. That’s not what movies are about. It is rare today to find a good story that uses the elements of horror to its narrative advantage. Rare but not unheard of. The original Saw for example has at its heart an interesting story and social commentary buried within the horrific game. The Sixth Sense, more a thriller than a horror movie, employs a strong narrative known for its show-stopping plot twist. The Suffering, an independent film written and directed by Robert Hamilton and starring Nick Apostolides finds itself in the rare category of a modern horror film built around a well-crafted story.
The Good: This film lives and dies on its sound design. Many of the visuals and natural sound of the film do very little to create the tension and suspense necessary for the overall effect of the movie. This problem is made that much larger or more apparent due to the distinct difference in funding of an independent film such as The Suffering as opposed to a similar thriller made by a major studio. This sound design overcomes that issue and levels the playing field, largely building the world of the film and dictating the pacing and tension of the narrative through a surprisingly effective score and a clever motif of music boxes and churchy organ music throughout. I had pretty high expectations for the sound design going into the film based on the trailer’s use of repetition reminiscent of the flashbulb in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre(the real one, not the remakes). I’m glad to say, it lived up to and maybe even exceeded those expectations.
The sound design works hand in hand with the narrative, another strong point of this film. As the story opens and we meet the characters of our journey, most are seemingly void of any interesting backstory; the driver, the house attendant, even our protagonist, Henry, seems to be lacking that major nugget of likability (we sympathize with his growing family but there still seems to be something rather bland about him). Henry arrives at the old house in a black car which you cannot help but compare to a hearse, then enters a house filled with organ music and the immediate funeral-style arrival hints at the macabre nature of the coming subject matter. Over the next twenty minutes or so, we largely search for the purpose of the story, not knowing that it has been spelled out for us in terms we don’t yet understand. It is the back two thirds of this movie, the highly symbolic characters Henry meets, and its narrative that shine; the biggest mistake you can make on this movie is giving up on it too soon. The third act offers a plot twist Shyamalan would be proud of, one I dare not give away. As any good reveal should do, it puts to rest many of the earlier questions of plot irregularity and serves as an “ah-ha moment” to an audience who has grown increasingly confused or frustrated with the direction of the story beforehand. The Suffering is, if nothing else, clever storytelling and a prime example of the power of a good script.
The Bad: As mentioned above, independent films have an inherent lack of resources in comparison to the blockbusters of Hollywood’s major studios which get to set par. Most of the elements of this film that don’t work are likely a result of just that. However, in reviewing a movie, you cannot put it on a separate scale based on circumstances. I’m a firm believer that a lack of resources simply requires an abundance of creativity to overcome; Val Lewton is well known for producing horror B-movies that were considerably better than your standard B-movie.
The visual style of the film seems somewhat disjointed, largely the early part as compared to the latter. Many of the early scenes are considerably brighter than later scenes (and the majority of the film could use another pass through color correction). Daylight seens aren’t necessarily a bad thing though it is a little out of the ordinary for the genre, and considering the amount of genre tropes and clichés used in the film, it seemed that adherence to genre was the name of the game. The scenes could have easily been filmed in less light, sunset, dusk, etc. with an added effect both narratively and visually. Bright light can be used effectively in horror/thriller genres however it must be done with careful deliberation. For example, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre mentioned before baits you with the safety of daylight only to force you to endure the same or even worse terror in the light. Perhaps a higher contrast in the color range could have helped to achieve less of a misleading brightness.
Additionally, there were some concerns with the acting. While Nick Apostolides does an overall admirable job as Henry, there are certainly moments in his performance that lack the depth or reaction necessary to drive the story. One great example occurs on his first full day appraising the estate when he finds something very unexpected in an attic. His reaction feels forced and lacking authenticity; he is clearly acting and not experiencing what the character would be feeling. This is an important scene, as is the following scene, and an inability to connect to the protagonist’s humanity in this instance does detract a bit from the believability of the story. Additionally, many of the characters in the story are given accents. This can be a powerful technique for representing the different backgrounds of the many characters, which makes a lot of sense looking back knowing the full scale of the story. However, with inconsistency of those accents, it can easily draw attention to the fact that this is a performance and can take the viewer out of the world of the film. As such, filmmakers must be very careful to utilize only strong and consistent accents or the compromise the integrity of the entire performance. Lastly on acting, there were some performances that simply did not work for me. The house attendant or “nurse” has a forced zombie-like performance. Given what we know about the character by the end, this may very well have been intentional but to me was very distracting. In one scene we get to see a much more human side of her and I think it plays considerably better. The driver pushes the creepy factor as much as possible, sometimes going a bit too far and becoming very obviously acting. For both characters, a slightly subtler representation could have portrayed the ominous vibe they sought without going too far and making their performances obvious.
The Ugly Truth: Rating (1-5) 2 (Worth a view on Amazon)
That’s a misleading rating. First of all, this film is solidly between 2 and 3 (maybe 5 out of 10 sounds better and more accurate). Unfortunately, I never round up but I do concede that without the inherent roadblocks of being a low-budget independent film, it easily could have been a 3 or higher. Secondly, this is not a film in theatrical release. That said, if I was given the chance to see it on the big screen (and especially hear the sound design in a theater) I would probably be willing to pay for the matinee ticket for it. As it is, The Suffering is available on Amazon and other for-purchase streaming services and I do recommend a viewing, especially as we enter the fall months that carry that need for horror and suspense. The film has a great center in the story and sound design. It is held back a bit from its full potential but it is entertaining and clever. Also, keep in mind, I gave Sully a 2 (my review here) and this is decidedly better than that, just not a 3. So this independent film is better than a Clint Eastwood film; that should give you enough incentive to watch.