“The subconscious is a powerful thing…”
…When you think about it, the subconscious is like a shadowy stalker we can’t get rid of. It watches from the darkness, just out of sight. It knows our every move. Where we’ve been. Where we’re going. And most chilling, it knows all of our secrets, as well as the things that scare us most. Director Christian Schultz’s debut feature narrative, Presence, which just premiered at Panic Fest 2022, brings to life the frightening traveler that is our subconscious.
Written by Schultz and Peter Ambrosio, Presence follows—heh—Jennifer (Jenna Lyng Adams), a lonely zipper designer who has found herself on the edge of a knife, haunted by strange dreams and paranoid delusions (or are they?). After months of trying to get a hold of her best friend and business partner, Sam (Alexandria DeBerry), she pops up out of the blue to tell Jen that billionaire David (Dave Davis) wants to cut a deal for their zipper company, and that Jen must meet them on David’s yacht for a trip to the factory where the deal will be signed. Meanwhile, Jen is having nightmares about killing her ex, Keaton (Octavio Pisano), while an eerie presence haunts her. Perfect time to get on an isolated yacht with an estranged friend and a complete stranger!
As you can probably guess, Presence is not a lighthearted film and has audiences taking a plunge into murky depths with Jen from the very beginning. Paranoia often feels like a brewing storm in our minds, and Schultz captures Jen’s mental state by opening on a thunderous downpour while she paces back and forth in her bedroom. Through unanswered texts to Sam and an abundance of gloomy lighting, we’re drawn deep into Jen’s desperation for a sense of normalcy and positive human interaction. Adams is exceptional in what must be a difficult role, balancing internal collapse with the struggle to put on a smile for those around her. She exudes a sad vulnerability underneath a forced toughness that is easy to connect to and admire.
Too bad all of Jen’s friends suck and seem like the type that would sooner abandon ship than give her the support she needs.
Presence encapsulates the fear of change in the face of success, presented without subtlety through Sam. When Jen finally sees her best friend for the first time in forever on the dock outside the Viviray (named after David’s ex-wife who he refuses to talk about), she’s perturbed by her Malibu Barbie appearance and penchant for popping Ambien pills. Making matters more uncomfortable is charming though manipulative David, waltzing around with his shirt unbuttoned, eyes taking a little too much interest in Jen. In some ways, the setup for Presence has that Dead Calm vibe, a tense triangle between characters in the middle of the sea who all want some unspoken thing.
Despite a few sensual moments though, Presence is not an erotic thriller on the ocean. This film is something much more sinister.
It’s awkward enough meeting up with an estranged friend and their maybe lover on a yacht in the middle of nowhere, but the lurking presence haunting Jen and her belief that she might’ve murdered her ex take the paranoia of the situation to the next level. John Paul Summers’ cinematography couples sunny, picturesque imagery of the stunning beauty around the characters with claustrophobic close-ups and a shadowy darkness creeping in to establish Jen’s terror bubbling just underneath the surface. Nick Bozzone and Kyle Richards’ sound design also works overtime—sometimes too much so—to establish an unnerving feeling that bites and scratches at Jen and our own nerves. Schultz is also wise to keep the rest of the crew outside of the three main characters mostly off-screen, creating a deeper sense of isolation.
Presence may contain a ghost—or something—and the film does give off a classical ghost story tone with a disturbed protagonist, an elegant yacht and old-timey music drifting through the tight quarters of the ship, but leans fully into the psychological horror elements of distrust and unanswered questions while including minimal jump scares and moments that scream “boo”. The title “Presence” is confined to more of a background role, with Jen’s suspicions taking center stage. That may disappoint some expecting a more traditional haunter, but Presence isn’t without its spooky suspense.
This is first and foremost a movie about the terror that comes with success and the world which that opens up, with Jen as a quivering lighthouse exposing the cruel creatures of that world. “I want to officially welcome you to the one percent…our thoughts become reality,” muses David. None of us are going to have much sympathy for someone being offered billions for their zipper company, but that’s still an unnerving thought and immense pressure, to consider that kind of power…especially when your thoughts are pure nightmare fuel. Presence is drowning in paranoia and Jen’s own suspicion of both herself and those around her, internally more isolated than the yacht itself. Schultz’s film takes it’s time to build on that fear, never quite getting the heart racing but ratcheting up the horror as things move along nonetheless.
A psychological horror flick on the sea is nothing new, and there isn’t much in Presence you haven’t seen before. As if to get away from clichéd tropes, the film instead takes the vague route to enhance the mystery, leaving the audience splashing around in the dark with more questions than answers. Presence takes viewers on a tense voyage bristling with psychological terror, but the journey is much more satisfying than the destination. Standard as the script is though, Presence is well-executed on nearly every level, with engaging performances that keep the film afloat, puzzling narrative be damned.
By Matt Konopka