“This is no dream. This is really happening!” So cries Rosemary near the conclusion of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby...
...Since then, many films have tried to capture the sense of confusion and terror associated with discovering that evil does exist, and it has plans for you. The Canadian film Amber’s Descent is the latest effort to tell a story of one woman’s fall from sanity as she discovers an evil chasing her. While the film ultimately misses the mark, it is well made, visually satisfying, and at times surprising.
Written and directed by Michael Bafaro (Driver from Hell), Amber’s Descent, currently enjoying its World Premiere at the Salem Horror Fest, has a familiar premise. A woman buys a large home in a remote part of Montana in an effort to find a fresh start after surviving a violent attack from her significant other. But soon after moving into the home, she has nightmares and sees vivid images of violence and death. We follow our protagonist as she struggles to determine if she is going crazy or if her home is haunted. This is familiar ground for horror films and even some romantic comedies (barring the haunted house) and, while Descent doesn’t break any new ground, it is competently made and engaging for the majority of the film.
Amber’s Descent is carried on the shoulders of its star, Kayla Stanton. Despite having only a smattering of credits to her name (two episodes of the CW series Supernatural and an unnamed role in Fox’s Lucifer), Stanton performs like a much more experienced actor. Her performance as Amber is believable and arresting, a good thing given she’s in almost every scene. Having one character be the focus of almost every moment of a film is potentially tiring for the audience and daunting for any performer. Stanton, however, rises to the occasion without difficulty. She plays Amber with strength and sensitivity at the beginning of the film and, as she begins to unravel, shows us believable fear and madness on par with many other recent successful scares. Kayla Stanton NEEDS to be in more films, and I hope that she receives the opportunity soon. Audiences will be better off seeing her in more roles.
Rounding out the cast is a friendly realtor, an overly helpful handyman, and a decidedly chill priest. While little is asked of the other roles, the supporting cast does seem to have difficulty keeping pace with Stanton. Amber shares many scenes with Jim the handyman, played by cowriter Michael Mitton (Okja). Mitton seems curiously miscast. He has a very slim frame and delicate features that imply a lifetime spent without physical labor. Meeting him and learning that there would be a sort of romantic give and take between him and Amber left me feeling as though the actors were mismatched. While Mitton is talented and capable, his physicality is simply wrong for the character.
Given the nature of this film, it could be argued that all the physical settings and characters can be mismatched; we are seeing events through Amber’s eyes. When done properly, this allows for uncertainty and builds tension. When done poorly, the audience is confused to the point of disinterest. Unfortunately, this movie has both types of moments. The film is wonderfully tense at times and annoyingly confusing at others. The plot maintains a steady course until its ending, while the effectiveness of any given moment shifts wildly.
Part of Amber’s story is that she is a renowned composer who spends most of her time creating music on a beautiful piano. While she is scared of the spirits that may be haunting her home, she is drawn to their power and finds it useful in helping her compose. The creative process as it relates to obsession is touched on at points throughout the film but doesn’t pay off in any meaningful way. It is clear Bafaro and Stanton have something to say about creativity and plenty of knowledge on the subject, but somehow it just didn’t make it onto the screen. Instead of presenting us with a cohesive theme on the pain of creation and the struggles associated with artistic expression, we are given some musings on art before the plot takes over and runs us to the ending.
The plot of the film is prescribed by cinematic convention. The audience knows that the house is haunted long before Amber does. Characters assure her that nothing is wrong, but we know better. The title implies—if not states outright—that Amber will go crazy. The scenes leading up to the final reveal are well made. Scenes of horror are genuinely frightening. The tension and unease that Amber feels is consistently effective and builds nicely throughout the film. And when Amber starts to lose her grip on reality, we start to feel her confusion and manic energy in a satisfying and exciting way.
All this builds nicely to the climax, but the ending itself is woefully muddled. The central question of the film is whether Amber is going crazy because of the haunting or if the appearance of a haunting is the result of her madness—is her insanity a symptom or a cause? As one would expect, the film offers evidence for both explanations. Unfortunately, when the time comes for the film to offer up its answer, we find ourselves unfulfilled and utterly confused. While trying to be shocking and original, the filmmakers ultimately serve up an ending that is entirely confusing and possibly meaningless, effectively undoing all of Descent’s best parts.
The filmmakers’ ambitions for originality in its conclusion may have been a little bigger than the film could handle. Had they made a more conventional film that told its tale with the energy and skill that the filmmakers clearly have, this would be a solid thriller. As it is, viewers will enjoy the ride but may be let down by its end.
By Mark Gonzales