by Adam Riske
I caught Sun Choke during last year’s “Bruce Campbell’s Horror Film Fest” (the new one is this weekend and Patrick and I will report on the fest next week) and I honestly didn’t know what to make of it. The movie played on what was perhaps the most schizophrenic day I can recall having in a movie theater. I started by seeing the notorious Cannibal Holocaust, then the delightful Turbo Kid, followed by the disturbing Sun Choke. I don’t think I realized how unsettling Sun Choke was at the time because I had seen it on the heels of Cannibal Holocaust. Any movie seems like a walk in the park after turtle murder. After revisiting Sun Choke on VOD last night, I can now say that it’s a movie I admire and one that is also completely mysterious and haunting in a way that makes me uncomfortable.
JB and Patrick did a podcast once about horror movies that “go too far,” which is something I kept recalling as I watched Sun Choke. There are certain scenes in Sun Choke that do go too far (a murder is too explicitly shown imho; a person being held captive is humiliated in an extended sequence, etc.) but the real reason the movie goes too far for me, and a reason why I think Sun Choke is so powerful, is because it’s a movie that doesn’t offer easy answers. It’s confusing and offers little clarity in character relationships and motivations as it plays out. The unknown element makes the movie feel dangerous in a way that horror films seldom feel. Horror movies usually have a third-act reveal detailing why the players are the way they are and what events led up to their horrific moments, but Sun Choke is like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining in that everything seems at once one thing but there’s a layer of peculiarity and uncertainty to the proceedings that makes everything else feel off. Sun Choke is very much an art project (sometimes more than a satisfying narrative) and I think that gives the movie a subtle power. It demands you think about it as you watch it. Is insanity nature or nurture? Do terrible things happen because of sheer chance or are there specific motivations? etc.
The cinematography, score and sound design all amplify the dread and the production design gives the movie the sense that it is in a hermetic bubble where rules are arbitrarily dictated by the ultra-wealthy and common sense/law & order does not apply. You feel trapped while watching Sun Choke, but in a good way – the way that disturbing horror movies make you feel when they want you to squirm.
I also want to give massive kudos to the performances in the film. It’s mostly a three character piece and all three actresses are very strong. Sara Malakul Lane brings the necessary center to the movie. She’s the audience conduit in a way because she is “one of us” dropped into the den of a couple of figurative wolves. Those wolves are played by Barbara Crampton in a performance that is even more impressive because it’s so atypical to what we are used to seeing from the actress. She gets to play very dark here, and I think the audience’s relationship to her past performances helps to make her part in Sun Choke that much more disturbing. And what can I say about Sarah Hagan in this movie? I thought she was great in Freaks and Geeks, but this is the type of performance that can really knock you out and reconsider an actor’s range. When I first saw Hagan in Sun Choke, I felt protective of her because her past roles have portrayed her as this sweet, innocent girl and that really gives her leeway to pull out the rug from under you with this performance. It’s basically her May.
Tales of Halloween, Turbo Kid and Starry Eyes. The fact that Sun Choke is in the silver medal category just exemplifies the strength of the lineup. Hope to see you there! Just don’t Sun Choke me afterwards?
P.S. If you see Sun Choke and have a theory about what a “sun choke” is, let me know. I think I get it but I’m not sure.