Indie Filmmaker Spotlight: Ben Cresciman’s “Sun Choke” (2015)

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Sun Choke is a horror film hiding behind the mask of an extremely efficient suspense thriller. Those thriller elements are present, to be sure, but lack any sort of crowd-pleasing catharsis. When it rears its ugly head, the violence isn’t cheer-worthy. Our palms don’t sweat in anticipation over where the plot is going, but dread wells up in our stomachs as we wonder just how much worse it will get.

Awkward and withdrawn, Janie (Sarah Hagan) is haunted by brief flashes of a sexual assault and another violent trauma that occurred in her parents’ abstract, upscale home. A seeming prisoner in a place where bad memories are embedded in the architecture, she’s monitored by Irma (Barbara Crampton), who possesses a New Age mentality toward psychological rehabilitation, but is not beneath employing methods that verge on the barbaric when her rules are tested. Early on, Irma permits Janie to leave the house based on her positive progress, but when the latter catches sight of the beautiful Savannah (Sara Malakul Lane), an unhealthy obsession blooms.

Writer-director Ben Cresciman has crafted a deceptively simple story that treats its limited setting and characters as a virtue: like a undetected tick burrowing down to suck blood, he uses precise imagery (transparent glass surfaces; bright-white, antiseptic home interiors), a plethora of camera techniques (pulling the image in and out of focus when Janie responds to a tuning fork, for instance), and incisive sound effects (water running through pipes; the shattering of glass or eggs) to depict neuroses that would go unaddressed otherwise.

Even the rainbow milkshakes Irma prepares for Janie depict an unsettling intrusion of sorts: the attempt to force-feed color and cheer into an environment of repression, distrust, and fear.

And the score, by Boom Bip, ranges from freeform ambient sounds to unsettling experimental noise. At its best, it recalls the distinctive, moody work of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. But in Sun Choke, the music isn’t a mere garnish on some meticulously-composed pictures; it complements, with acute precision, the characters’ feelings of persecution and marginalization.

Like that undetected tick, it burrows deep.

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Janie (Sarah Hagan) in Sun Choke. Image source:

Cresciman directs the film with icy skill, and mounts character-based suspense that builds to an almost unbearable degree. Like a New Age Noir dame, Irma drops spacey lines – all of which are gold as delivered by Crampton – that allude to agreements, parental friction, and the timeline of Janie’s therapy, but any conclusions remain ambiguous.

Like Polanski’s Repulsion, this is a largely subjective tale, told by a character who’s hard to like.

The standoffs between the up-and-down Janie and the almost impossibly neutral Irma present an interesting mental tug-of-war: neither character ever completely earns our sympathy, and as a result, we are never truly able to “take a side.” But they are both strong – and conniving – enough for us to remain solidly invested in their actions, no matter how abhorrent.

To that end, the performances are excellent all around: Hagan (Millie from Freaks and Geeks) immerses herself in the unsteady Janie, going to physically and emotionally extreme places in an impassioned way; Lane shines as an unwitting pawn whose own eventual horror mirrors that of the viewer; and Crampton, continuing her career resurgence (after You’re NextWe Are Still Here, and a cameo in The Lords of Salem), delivers one of her best performances as Irma. No scream queen here – she’s a model of carefully controlled restraint, and a marvel to watch.

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Irma (Barbara Crampton) tunes in Sun Choke. Image source:

Sun Choke tags its influences with a fearlessness that matches its characters; while not in the same universe as the films of Mickey Keating, Cresciman nonetheless knows when to pay homage to his genre forebears and contemporaries. Some late-occurring imagery brings to mind the subjective maternal paranoia of Rosemary’s Baby; Janie’s fixation on Savannah, and the madness that ensues, recalls Zack Parker’s excellent exploration of obsessive relationships, Proxy; a protracted, brutal murder is reminiscent of an infamous scene in Irreversible; and glimpses of abuse through a camcorder viewfinder acts as an interesting update of the themes of childhood trauma in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom.

As told through Janie’s perspective, certain sequences are jagged in their editing, and some plot developments (including the events that lead up to the aforementioned murder) don’t make any sense insofar as logic and character consistency are concerned. It calls into question the reality of what we’re viewing, with Janie evoking her male counterpart in Simon Killer, but also the revisionist-crime-reconstruction of the titular character in David Cronenberg’s Spider.

If you like being challenged by movie, Sun Choke is the best thing you could possibly stream on Netflix right now. But fair warning: it’s gonna hurt.

Jonny Numb’s IMDb Rating: 8 out of 10