The condemned: Bethany
The plot: This is a movie that fits comfortably alongside any number of other derivations of the “something spooky in the walls” horror subgenre. Claire Mason and her husband, Aaron, move back to her childhood home following the death of her mother. However, she immediately gets a bad feeling, and starts experiencing strange hallucinations and flashbacks to her childhood, where her mother abused her and treated her like a show pony for childhood beauty pageants, and Claire’s only friend was an imaginary one named Bethany. Now, as odd things begin happening, Claire starts to worry that her imaginary friend may still exist in some spectral form, and is none too happy to see her back home. You can pretty much guess where things go from there, especially if you watch the trailer, the ending of which spoils one of the better scares in the film, even if it is a direct rip-off from basically every J-horror movie ever.
Over-the-top box copy: “A real American horror story.” Take that, Ryan Murphy and FX! Although, claiming your obviously fictional story is “real” is a pretty lame move these days, on par with “inspired by a true story” during the opening credits, or “from the producers of…” on the poster.
The descent: The director, James Cullen Bressack, is one of those Larry Fessenden types, working on 20 different things at once and churning out a steady stream of low-budget horror-related projects, as writer, producer, and director. (Not to mention being a jack of all trades on his own films, doing everything from cinematography to makeup to special effects.) He says in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter (which, hey, good press for a lo-fi horror maestro) that “it’s time for me to explore other genres, because I either need to step up in budget in horror, which isn’t quite happening, or I have to go to another genre and I can come back to horror when I get those bigger budgets.” Perhaps he’s getting tired of saying on set, “Okay, imagine there’s a tennis ball there demarcating a CGI ghost.”
The theoretically heavenly talent: Top billing in the advertising goes to former Beverly Hills: 90210, Charmed, and Blood Lake: Attack Of The Killer Lampreys star Shannen Doherty. (Bressack also directed that last one, for Animal Planet, of all places, and also collaborated with Doherty on a pilot and a short prior to Bethany. Unsurprisingly, she serves as a producer on the film.) The two may be copacetic as work friends, but Doherty’s performance here is about what you’d expect, which is to say, not great. Thankfully, she’s only in about four scenes, so perhaps Bressack is more a skilled tactician than anything—her name presumably got the film more attention and overseas distribution options. (Stupidly, I underestimated her continuing appeal for a certain demographic; when I brought up to my partner that I was watching this movie for work, I prefaced it by saying, “Well, Shannen Doherty is one of the stars, but–” and they cut me off with, “I’m in.”)
The other notable name is Tom Green, and honestly, the combination of his name with Doherty’s as the billed stars is what made this movie sound weird enough for a Home Video Hell feature. Green plays the couple’s therapist, which is funny enough, but he sports a thick beard and a little newsboy cap the entire time, to boot. There’s not exactly high demand for Green’s dramatic chops, one assumes, but he acquits himself reasonably well in Bethany. It helps that he’s not asked to do much beyond, “Make bad jokes about being Canadian,” and (spoiler alert, in case you were already really invested in his character), “Die.” Also, he’s literally playing someone named “Dr. Brown,” and they don’t make a single Back To The Future joke; I guess his character only likes Canadian blockbusters.
It’s basically a four-person cast, and the other two actors—the actual stars of this film—both turn in solid performances. Stefanie Estes does a fine job as Claire, while her co-star and ubiquitous character actor Zack Ward (another Attack Of The Killer Lampreys alum) puts in another appearance that will trigger bouts of, “Oh, hey, it’s that guy,” from the many people who have seen him pop up in more than a hundred roles since his debut child performance of “Scut Farkus,” the bully from A Christmas Story.
The execution: Surprisingly tolerable. Once you realize Bressack is reasonably competent behind the camera, and the actors actually top-lining this film know what they’re doing, the whole thing becomes entertaining enough, the equivalent of any number of serviceable, albeit slapdash, horror films that deliver little more than a few good scares and a way to kill 90 minutes. In addition to starring, Ward co-wrote the film with Bressack, and despite the derivative (and deeply illogical) nature of the story, it works as a means of injecting a few jump scares and goosebumps into your viewing experience. (Spoilers ahead, if you care.)
Bethany is one of those horror movies that turns on the strength of its big reveal: namely, that Claire really did have a sister named Bethany, but who was born deformed, so their mother (Doherty, natch) paid the doctors to pretend she was stillborn, and then proceeded to sew a permanent mask onto her face (gross, also ouch) and keep her hidden away in the walls of the house. Yes, somehow Claire failed to realize she had a misshapen sibling living behind the wallpaper her entire young life, instead assuming the hands pressing out of the wall and the voice she heard talking to her were the product of her imagination. (Dumb kid, that Claire.) So when she convinced her mom to take her on a ski outing when she was 10 and they got snowed in for a whole week, Bethany starved to death in the walls. I guess Mom was too busy counting the beauty pageant trophies to care about her deformed dead kid, since she left her corpse there all these years?
And that’s only one of a number of things that don’t really add up. Claire lived at home until she was 17, but during those additional seven years, the ghost of Bethany was apparently totally cool with her still-living sis. It’s only when Claire returns following the mother’s death all these years later that Bethany starts to haunt the shit out of her sibling, perhaps because she wanted to wait until the cameras were rolling. On the plus side, one of the ghost’s vengeful attempts to hurt Claire is actually pretty creepy, largely because Bressack keeps the jump-scare moment delayed as long as possible.
Although, that arm coming out of the wall is a somewhat silly payoff.
Speaking of silly payoffs, the first “scare” is a delightfully dumb one. Having just moved into the place, Claire already knows she doesn’t care for it. Too many bad memories, and the like. But as she’s sitting at the dinner table at night, arguing the issue with Aaron, she looks down and sees the spoon she was just using has been moved from where she left it. She moves it back, continues to argue, looks down again—and it moved back! At this point, the scary music swells, Claire flees the table, and we’re rewarded with the terrifying sight of… a close-up of a spoon moving an inch forward. Not exactly the reveal of Freddy Krueger.
Still, it’s a worthwhile movie if you’re a fan of low-key gross-outs. I’m pretty hardy when it comes to extreme gore of the blood-and-guts variety, but everyday behaviors, when blown up and emphasized, really make me sick. There’s a scene here where Bressack amps up the discomfort by zooming in on Aaron slurping and crunching some milky cereal, and the effect is nauseating. Similarly, there’s another moment where Claire is at the piano when a bad memory disturbs her playing, and she suddenly tears off a nail, which is something I have nightmares about even without the aid of Bethany. Little things like that are almost enough to make me forget how much I laughed when I saw that Claire and Aaron apparently have long-distance therapy sessions with their buddy Doc Brown, but choose to do it via a TV screen, with nary a laptop in sight.
Likelihood it will rise from obscurity: It may have some legs for fans of silly, low-budget horror, especially with the campy Doherty scenes, however fleeting they may be. Plus, Tom Green’s appearance in this dour and serious role just makes it an oddity. But the film’s middling level of quality—not hacky garbage, but not genuinely spooky—probably condemns it to the same afterlife as the countless other C-level horror films featuring limited appearances from former household names.
Damnable commentary track or special features? As with many films that will likely only live digitally from now on, there’s no special features, but a Google search will turn up a pair of behind-the-scenes featurettes, in which the very likable Bressack is remarkably candid about the pains of being a director on a tiny budget, explaining tricks like getting two shots out of one, for instance, by shooting a character doing lines, and then panning down to show them picking up an object as an insert for a completely different scene, one he can later edit into place. (He also shows off the list of planned shots he never got to during filming, essentially a “the movie would be better if I actually filmed what I wanted” inventory of sadness.) Unfortunately, he also decides explaining his color-coding system for his notebooks is a valuable thing to see, so maybe fast-forward through that part.