– By M Jones
There’s a lot of familiar star studded names in Bethany, which clearly has a bigger budget than most of the horror movies I’ve reviewed lately. With some new and vintage star power backing it, I’m sure there’s hope of theatrical release, and certainly there are moments in this film that demand this. But as horror films of this vein go, there is a certain overconfidence evident in its execution, and it’s this that leaves the viewer both perplexed and annoyed instead of properly scared. Which is a shame, because while there is a prevailing theme that threatens to crawl under the skin, the horror abruptly backs away and leaves the viewer with a sense of longing for that story that wanted to be told, but was pushed aside for the sake of cliche.
The meat of Bethany is a serious, scary movie. Its strength lies in how it juxtaposes bright suburbia sensibilities with its underlying, muted repression of all that isn’t perfect. As a former beauty queen who suffered through the dreams and wishes of her aging mother, character Claire (played with tortured realism by Stefanie Estes) upon her mother’s death inherits her house. Within its pristine simplicity all of the ghosts of her past, literal and otherwise, brutally haunt her. There was lots of room in this film to explore the often tumultuous, competitive relationships between mothers and daughters and its unhealthy aftermath, but Bethany never fully dives into this theme, hovering instead on its periphery where it becomes more footnote than focus. Susan, Claire’s mother, is played with fantastic contradiction by Shannon Doherty, who is obsessed with her daughter’s beauty and her own trapped existence within its overemphasis. Claire’s disturbing memories of growing up in a repressive life comprised of appearance at the expense of self are the real horrific moments of this film. It is gut wrenching to watch Claire’s descent into madness, the jarring images highly metaphoric in regards to our concepts of feminine beauty. Shockingly gorgeous actor Stefanie Estes captures that dichotomy of losing oneself into expectations of femininity very well, the fragility of Claire not only exploited and shaped by her mother in her past, but seemingly also by her husband Aaron, played by actor Zack Ward. As she listens to him lay out their lives due to an unexpected promotion at his work, Claire’s autonomy disappears into his speech, his words morphing into controlling sound bytes where he waxes on about how great it would be that she would no longer need to work, that she would need to go the gym, of course, to keep her figure, a list of what he expects of her and the increasing pressure and horror of how her life is so fervently under his control.
If Bethany remained in this Stepford metaphorical headspace, it would have been a brilliant film. Unfortunately, it loses this more fascinating focus to become a simplistic ghost story. Complex themes of mothers versus daughters and the ugliness that the drive for female perfection creates is tossed aside to make way for a convoluted monster in the closet that struggles to wander through the plot. Claire’s husband becomes a believer through an abrupt act of violence, the demon is quelled, and all is a supposedly happy ending until, of course, it isn’t…The last twenty or so minutes of the film completely lost me. I had hope until then, but the suspense suddenly fizzled out in a pile of wordy exposition that had no foreshadowing in any portion of the film, and much of the frightening impact that was impressive in the middle of the movie fell flat.
I’m very forgiving of indie film because there’s no question it’s a deep love of the horror genre that creates it, and that is a feeling the viewer instinctively resonates with. Bethany has some damn good scares. But with its star power and bigger budget, as a jaded viewer I’m expecting a lot more than a simple B-movie plot, especially when the viewer is offered depth only to be yanked into the shallows. Bethany is an uneven film, unsure of its footing in psychological horror with jarring, false injections of camp provided by Tom Green’s character, Dr. Brown. His discussion with Claire’s husband about what it is to be Canadian was woefully out of place and a waste of narrative in his scene. We get it, you’re Tom Green and you’re in a horror movie, how weird, right? I love Tom Green. The Mustard Inspector is still one of my favourite comedic clips. And with Tom Green as her psychiatrist, it’s no wonder Claire is suddenly spiralling into terrifying delusions. But the serious tone of the film doesn’t fit with Green’s rather underdeveloped character, not to mention the unfair treatment he received at the end. No one likes to end up a rushed, nearly forgotten plot point along the way. I’m sorry that happened to you, Mr. Green.
Bethany survives the basics of any horror movie. It’s watchable, it is scary in parts, it’s great to see Shannon Doherty again, gleefully playing a vicious matron who vacillates wildly between loving and monstrous. The atmosphere is catastrophic and drenched in blue and black shadows, which Stefanie Estes revels in, her tense, terrified portrayal of Claire adding far more layers to her character than the denouement of the film provides. The Monster At The End Of This Film is strangely irrelevant, and I would argue unnecessary. Watch Bethany, if only for the potential of what it tried to provoke. There’s the possibility I’m getting this all wrong. Perhaps the shallow imprint it leaves behind is the message, after all.