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rochefort [Celluloid 10.22.17] horror thriller

In the first moments of Shortwave, young mother Isabel (Juanita Ringeling) steps away from her daughter to make a quick trip to the ladies’ room, and returns to find her child gone and the town mysteriously empty. A couple of years and one suicide attempt later, she and her husband Josh (Cristobal Tapia Montt) have just moved into a remote “smart house”, complete with iffy locks and talking brain, in the hopes that a change of scenery will help with Isabel’s steadily deteriorating mental state.

The house is a gift to the couple from the backers of Josh’s research project, one in which he and his partner Thomas (Kyle Davis) hope to track the origins of a complex cosmic transmission using cross-referenced data from shortwave radios. As Josh and Thomas inch ever closer to the breakthrough that could prove to be an extraterrestrial welcome (and skyrocket their careers), Isabel is plagued by increasing hallucinations and disturbing visions of a past she only barely recognizes.

Directed by Ryan Gregory Phillips, Shortwave is nothing if not ambitious, a tiny-budgeted blend of psychological horror, gory quasi-Giallo, alien abduction flick and highbrow arthouse thriller. The cinematography by Lucas Gath is frequently fantastic, as is the ethereal score by Dominic Fallacaro, and the performances by the two appealing leads are quite good. But this is one of those films where it’s not enough to simply admire the ambition on display, because the missteps in story, in tone, and in direction are just too loud and dissonant.

After an opening credits sequence that plays like a trailer for a different film, the story settles in and for a while it feels like we’re watching an intriguing (albeit fairly derivative) variation on the evil aliens scenario. But spread throughout what could have been a solid macabre thriller are too many off-key elements to ignore.

Ringeling, who is definitely nice to look at, spends so much of the movie in bikinis or her underwear that it becomes kinda ridiculous. Certain character actions are glaringly illogical and inconsistent. One example: Josh’s reactions to his wife’s peculiar behaviour are what you’d expect from the typical suburban husband, not someone who’s just announced that we’re not alone in the universe. And a track from Vancouver Sleep Clinic gets used at least three times to diminishing effect, particularly during a key but jarringly schmaltzy death scene.

It ultimately feels like Phillips is trying to cram in too many of his influences and favorite films. The remote location and science-y stuff are very Ex Machina, the many montages, dream sequences and esoteric breakaway shots try hard to channel Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, the central tragic trope is just too familiar and worn-out, and there’s a sense throughout that Phillips is a seriously big fan of Dario Argento. And all of this would be fine, of course, if the blend was a smooth one, but too often we’re left feeling like we’re watching four or five different kinds of films, each taking turns at the helm, none of them really in sync with the rest. The climax is where things really nosedive fast, full of too many drastic tonal shifts, ill-placed music cues, lazy plot twists, and an ending that is as confusing as it is unsatisfying.

But I would still recommend Shortwave. Like I said, its ambition is undeniable, and I truly think that everybody involved is capable of some remarkable stuff. It’s not completely clear to me if the film’s biggest mistakes are due to hubris or bravery, but with the talent on display its easy to assume the latter, and I’m very interested to see what Phillips and company do next. But maybe next time, guys, go easy with the Vancouver Sleep Clinic.

Recommended Release: The Invitation

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