Overview: A rookie detective investigates satanic killings while dealing with her own demons. Loose Cannon Films; 2017; Not Rated; 100 Minutes.
Resting Bitch Face: Detective Rebecca Faraway (Sarah Beck Mather) has had it. It’s clear in the first frame of her face reflecting the harsh red light of the dashboard; she’s done. It’s a look recognizable to anyone who has been forced into confinement with a difficult personality. In this case, it’s her partner Detective Smith (Andonis Anthony) who condescendingly pries about her well being, comments on her appearance, and makes jokes at her expense. They’re on their way to investigate a crime scene, one in a series of killings marked by strange symbols, numbers, and missing organs. It looks like ritual killings, a big and exciting case for the young detective’s career and she takes it seriously despite the people who surround her.
While trying to further her career and solve these crimes, Faraway must contend with her colleagues who repeatedly bully and dismiss her for her sex. She’s working harder than everyone and it’s taking twice as long to reap the rewards. She’s exhausted. On top of her professional problems, she’s dealing with personal crises, carrying heartbreak and stress like a ten-ton weight on her shoulders. As the film goes on, we watch her shrink under the weight of trying to cope.
That’s why it makes sense that she snaps at every comment and wears the face of a woman who is on the last third of her last nerve. It’s also why she’s so easy to identify with, especially as a woman, and especially today. Sarah Beck Mather seems born to play this role. The looks she gives are razors, eviscerating her juvenile teammates and communicating her struggle – she’s a woman who has bent so far backwards that she’s overstepped newfound assertiveness and has propelled herself into into attack mode. It’s fair: she is fighting for her job, her sanity, and also her life.
The Dark: As the investigations continue, Rebecca begins to have strange and terrifying hallucinations. Bodies at crime scenes seem to come to life, she’s surrounded by death only she can see, and her home is invaded by shapes and shadows. She quickly descends into a constant state of paranoia and quasi-sexual angst. But the source of these changes is suspect; there’s always a prescription medication involved to throw us off. Mirrors are used to full effect in this film with just a touch of special effect to really make it feel like reality is unraveling.
Charismata borrows from a number of horror classics, most obviously the work of Polanski with visual nods to Repulsion and the rest of the apartment trilogy. Gialli influence is also seen in its lighting and framing, a real treat. Unfortunately, it also briefly borrows an uncomfortable trope from the ’70s, the “magical black man,” the immigrant security guard at the crime scene who explains the “sight from hell” and talks about witch doctors. This is the film’s only real glaring error, and the rest comes off like an earnest and successful attempt at reviving the best parts of that era of horror.
The overall story of the serial killer goes from muddled to outlandish quickly, starting slow and stingy but then giving you more than you might be comfortable with. Without giving it away, the last act takes some incredibly bold chances (particularly the final shot) that will ask you to be flexible and give them props for going where few have gone before. In the end, watching Rebecca’s mind bend and contort is the most entertaining part. Everything else feels secondary thanks to Beck Mather’s performance. I’d love to see more of her work.
Overall: Charismata is a smart and polished indie horror that deserves to be seen. It boasts a strong lead and great visuals while delivering a fresh take on retreaded ground. It’s also surprisingly funny even at its most cynical, letting the quality writing shine through for its cast. Every now and then you see a film that makes you feel like the people involved in it were having a great time. Charismata is one of those films. It feels good to know people are still making movies like this, taking chances and cultivating real talent. When the credits rolled I let out a supremely entertained laugh.
Featured Image: Loose Canon Films