What do you do when you appreciate the heights to which a director aspires, but the finished film falls short of the mark? That’s how Bethany comes across; you can understand what director James Cullen Bressack is trying to achieve with his stream-of-consciousness journey into the psychological terror of his subjects. However, the result feels like a goulash of horror movie staples which hasn’t quite finished cooking, leaving a bit of an unsatisfying finish on the palate, no matter how Bressack tries to set his film apart from the rest.
As written by Bressack and co-star Zack Ward, the screenplay leans heavily on driving its main character Claire (Stefanie Estes) to nearly-inescapable insanity as she inherits her childhood home. She doesn’t want it, but her husband Aaron (Ward) dismisses her, claiming it’s just what they need to start over; it’ll give them a chance to leave their turbulent past life behind and give him a chance to build a client list for his tech business.
Patriarchal attitudes dominate this entire film, with Claire being treated as fragile while men – including Tom Green as their therapist, Dr. Brown (which, of course, prompts a Back to the Future joke or two in there for good measure) – decide what’s best for her. Of course, any rational person would be screaming, “WHY DON’T YOU JUST TELL THEM WHY YOU DON’T WANT TO BE HERE?!”, but we’re moved along too quickly into spates of Claire’s silent reverie, remembering the childhood she had at the hands of her mother Susan (Shannen Doherty), who pushed her into beauty contests and generally made her life a living hell.
Claire is a meek, timid product of people constantly telling her what to do. Only through the events of the film can she find her inner strength and finally stand up for herself; even then, her actions are seen through the eyes of people who aren’t truly listening to her. She is merely a conduit to help the story unfold, a rag doll to be pushed around by both the corporeal and the supernatural. Meanwhile, the weight of the memories and the spirit awoken by her new inheritance go unnoticed and tossed aside for normalcy’s sake by the people who claim to care about her.
It’s not an even movie by any stretch of the imagination, with logic and balance forsaken in favor of attempted frights and a mystery gradually revealed. Bressack and Ward’s script places the onus directly on Claire to find out what’s going on, but it doesn’t give her a chance to let the others in on what she discovers, much less what she’s experiencing. I kind of shudder to think this is what their vision of women must be – beautiful, but without a mind of their own – but the way Bethany is written, it’s more of a means to an end.
In this limited capacity, Estes bears the full brunt of her character’s physical and psychological terror well, providing as much of a believable character as the script allows. The film offers a lot of time spent alone with her as she descends into claustrophobic dementia with no relief in sight. Also, can it be said that former MTV jokester Tom Green might actually be capable as an actor? Yes. His Dr. Brown may not be the best-written doctor in the world, but Green ekes out a believable, thoughtful turn as someone who may actually be convinced by what’s happening to Claire and why.
Bethany wears its genre influences – from films like Halloween, The Shining, The Others, The Orphanage, Pet Sematary, and others – right on its sleeve, leading to a bit of overreliance on familiar images, plot points, and action beats. Gross-looking strands of string coming out of someone’s skin? Got it. High-angle shot of a car winding up a steep mountain road? Check. Crazy mother with a terrible secret? Yup. More can be said, but that would be spoiling Bethany‘s by-the-numbers surprises.
That’s the greatest sin Bethany commits: being by-the-numbers, not to mention illogical. Bressack tries to diminish these sins by peppering the film with effective, spooky imagery and the scantest of frights to keep things horror-oriented, but they’re superficial at best. The strengths of the film lie in its performances and its attempt at breaking away from being anything but “standard.” While it may not succeed fully on the latter, Bethany scores enough points to be memorable, if only for its horrific examination of a family ruined by long-buried secrets and festering madness.