(By James Whealan) Written/directed by John Keeyes (Nightmare Box) The Harrowing, a new supernatural thriller, tries to do a lot of things during its two-hour runtime, and, despite a strong performance by Matthew Tompkins, ends up being rather predictable and fails at doing anything really new with the genre...
...We’re introduced to Ryan Calhoun (Tompkins), a vice detective with a penchant for making phone calls at inopportune times, while he’s in the middle of a sting targeting a pedophile ring. He excuses himself from the admittedly rather trusting pedophile human traffickers to use the bathroom, where he makes said ill-timed call to his boss, abandoning his partner in the process, just in time for the proverbial shit to hit the fan. Long story short, the pedophiles and his partner wind up dead, and Ryan is severely wounded.
We then jump ahead a few years to his newest detail, which seems to involve entrapping local politicians in prostitution stings. He’s now been partnered up with his best friend who we’ve never met until now and “a rookie” in his mid-forties. They set up a surveillance operation where they watch a prostitute friend of Ryan have sex with a congressman. Apparently, their ultimate goal is to bust him, but they don’t seem particularly concerned beyond watching the prostitute have sex while Ryan, of course, decides to go on a coffee run where he again decides to make a phone call. In the meantime, the prostitute, congressman and Ryan’s best friend are murdered and partially eaten by the rookie. Ryan returns in time to witness the aftermath and gun down the rookie, but not before a long rant about demons by the newly-minted cannibal. By this point, most horror fans will probably be able to see the direction the story is going in, and unfortunately, it’s pretty much exactly what you expect.
Already this segment makes the previous intro seem extraneous, considering it’s largely a repeat of what we had seen, just with some demonic possession and cannibalism added. Ryan’s already been traumatized by the death of his previous partner and now he’s going to be traumatized again by roughly similar events. It does give Matthew Tompkins an opportunity to show range beyond gruff and sarcastic though. During the scenes where he’s allowed to access more emotion, he sells his anguish pretty well, but the material he has to work with is a little too on the nose, often describing things that occurred just one scene prior.
As these things usually go, Ryan gets suspended, complete with a “turn in your gun and badge” by his lieutenant, a clearly bored Michael Ironside. Since Ryan is your classic loose cannon cop, he decides to investigate despite being explicitly told not to and discovers the rookie had stayed at a local mental hospital and decides the best course of action would be to go undercover as a mental patient. His lieutenant agrees with this despite having already suspended him earlier and finally we’re off to the actual meat of the story around the one hour mark. One of the major flaws of the film is its pacing. After the earlier false starts it finally starts becoming interesting but it hasn’t really done anything to justify clocking in at two hours.
In short order, Ryan gets committed, meets the local crazies who all seem to have gone to the same acting school for crazy (your basic bit of gesticulating hands, rocking back and forth, and pulling your own hair business that burgeoning actors seem to associate with mental illness), meets Arnold Vosloo’s Dr. Franklin Whitney, who practically screams “bad guy” as a good 75% of his dialogue is about “releasing demons”, and discovers that something bad happens to patients who are brought into the basement. It’s actually that particular scene that was continually irksome.
Ryan discovers pretty early on in his stay that bad shit goes down in the basement. A mental patient is wheeled by obviously evil doctors on an obviously evil gurney (seriously it’s all black and covered in blood and has squeaky wheels) into an elevator to the basement. Ryan, being the excellent detective that he is, watches all of this, including the creepy doctors in surgical gear that seem to have been ripped right out of Jacob’s Ladder and decides that rather than following them to find out what’s going on, he’ll just go back to his room to sleep while openly wondering aloud where they were going and for what purpose. Unsurprisingly, he finds himself on one of the evil gurneys immediately after falling asleep.
The “operating theater” segments, which happen a few times, are actually some of the more interesting and technically proficient parts of the film, and probably should have been focused on more. Visually striking, there’s always something interesting going on whether from character appearance or in the background like, for instance, a shadowy demon eating someone’s entrails. In fact, the effects, which were largely practical, are consistently good. The main demonic apparition is interesting in the few brief glimpses we get of it and it’s a shame we don’t see it more often as it would really help sell the idea that we aren’t quite sure whether the demon is real or just a hallucination. The only criticism I have on the overall look in general is the overuse of filters, giving everything a sickly yellow tinge most of the time.
As time goes on Ryan begins to question his sanity and his purpose for going to the hospital which leads to an identity crisis that keeps him guessing, and supposedly the audience as well. Perhaps it’s just my jaded nature but I saw all the twists and turns coming from a mile away, but then the plot will add something nonsensical just to have a “gotcha” element, like the shifty-eyed dog was responsible all along in that Simpsons episode where Homer writes a movie. A few of these odd plot holes pop up from time to time and could easily have been avoided had the film been confident in letting the story stand on its own internal logic rather than the usual horror movie tropes. In fact, it’s the sort of paint-by-numbers plotting of the film that really does it a disservice. The plot itself should be exciting and it’s an interesting concept, but it never plays out that way and ultimately feels a bit cliched and boring. At times, I found myself saying a hackneyed line out loud, only for the characters to end up saying the same line immediately. Add to that the slow pace of the narrative and it becomes a kiss of death for the attention span.
With a few more rewrites and more confidence in the story, The Harrowing could have really been something, but as it stands, it’s more of a “watch on Netflix if there’s nothing else on” kind of film.
The Harrowing releases on VOD on December 25th.
By James Whealan