Unsane March 26, 2018
1 Hr., 37 Mins.
Toward the end of the Hollywood Golden Age, the art of the promotional gimmick was perfected by the horror filmmaker William Castle. Although the director had been making competent B movies since the early 1940s, he had never made a film that was a runaway, bonafide hit, let alone a feature that remained in the public consciousness for longer than a week. In his pre-gimmick days, Castle was known as a sturdy director for hire who could make films quickly, and under budget. This, however, wasn’t artistically satisfying. He knew he was capable of more.
In the late 1950s, he forged his own path. He terminated his relationship
with Columbia, the studio which used and abused him for more than a decade, and started making films independently. This proved itself a remarkably palmy endeavor. His first feature as a self-supporting artist, 1958’s Macabre, made its budget back nearly 56 times. This wasn’t because the film was an unmissable masterpiece, though: Like most of Castle’s other movies, it is a fun, if rather throwaway, Hitchcock rip-off. Macabre was such an astonishing success because of the promotional gimmicks Castle threw its way.
To pique the interests of potential customers, Castle gave each ticket buyer a $1,000 life-insurance policy from Lloyd’s of London should they “die of fright.” At some theaters, fake nurses were planted in lobbies should patrons need medical assistance. Hearses were often parked at entrances. Castle even arrived at the movie’s premiere in a coffin. His advertising methods, shameless and silly as they were, worked for a number of years: House on Haunted Hill (1959), The Tingler (1959), 13 Ghosts (1961), and others, were hits in part due to their gimmick-reliant marketing strategies. (My favorite is the one used for 1961’s Homicidal: The climax was so frightening, supposedly, that Castle embedded a 45-second “fright break” in the film reel before the sequence in case audiences were too chicken to sit through it.)
In the years since Castle’s domination as cinema’s greatest showman, no directors have utilized these sorts of shock tactics so prolifically – though gimmicks still come out of the woodwork every so often. The splatter film Snuff (1976) was marketed as an actual snuff movie. John Waters supplemented 1981’s Polyester with Smell-O-Vision, which entailed that audiences be overwhelmed with scene-specific aromas. During its advertising stages, the found-footage masterstroke The Blair Witch Project (1999) was declared a work of nonfiction, its actors temporarily listed “missing” or “deceased.”
Now here’s Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane (2018), among the few gimmick horror movies of the 2010s. The difference here, though, is that the gimmick itself is more an experimental tactic than an advertising scheme, and eventually comes to be forgotten about. The feature, shot for just $1.5 million, is the first widely released thriller to be photographed with an iPhone. (A 7, to be exact.)
Unsane isn’t the only movie of the decade to trade traditional photographic techniques for the wonders of the omnipresent device. Romance in NYC, a naturalist romantic drama from 2014, and 2015’s Tangerine, a comedy about the lives of a pair of transgender pals, also used the phone’s camera to help tell their stories. But Unsane is, nonetheless, the first movie to use this technique that can be watched in a mall Regal.
Watching the feature, which is a De Palmian shocker in which nothing is what it seems, the novelty wears off quickly: It is such a terrific, claustrophobic thriller that our hyperawareness of the photography fades rather quickly. It heightens the experience but doesn’t define it – it’s something of a Shock Corridor (1964) for the modern age, except the images are fittingly sinister and angular rather than crystalline and composed.
And that works here, given Unsane’s batty and sometimes delusive premise. It stars The Crown’s (2016-present) Claire Foy as Sawyer, a vitriolic young businesswoman who’s just moved to Pennsylvania to start a new life and career. Though she appears self-assured and cutting in the ways most white-collared crackerjacks do, Sawyer is running away from something. Make that a someone – for the last couple years, she has been relentlessly stalked by the son of a hospice patient she took care of in her early 20s.
She hopes hitting the restart button will revamp what’s become a paranoid, sleepless life. Temporarily, it does. Though her prickly personality makes it difficult for her to make friends, her hard work is noticed and she seems poised for a promotion. But shortly into Unsane, age-old anxieties start creeping up again. Proactively, she signs up for a stalking-victim support group at a nearby hospital. After a quick meeting with a counselor, she signs some paperwork that will presumably enable her to attend group sessions in the future. But it turns out that one of the slips she’s signed has given the hospital permission to commit her to the psych ward.
The scenes that accrue from this development make for some of the movie’s best. Foy is first-rate and even funny as she tries to get out of this accidental lock-up by faking niceties. But this all proves fruitless, especially after Sawyer socks a couple people she thinks might pose a threat to her safety. The hospital, so against her from the start, decides to up her stay from a single day to seven – and there isn’t anything she can do about it. And if this weren’t a nightmare already, it appears that her stalker from days past has somehow gotten a job at the facility.
When this is discovered, we ponder if Sawyer actually is delusional. Judging from her erratic response and our lack of knowledge, we’re partial to wondering if she ever had a stalker at all. Is this simply a woman warped by a misconception? Is everything we’ve seen thus far merely an extension of her mania?
The ambiguous nature of Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer’s screenplay, paired with Soderbergh’s stomach-churning direction and cinematography, prompts speculation. Thankfully it turns out that this isn’t one of those head-spinning psychological thrillers where the twists prove themselves figments of an unreliable narrator’s imagination: everything is rooted in reality. So it’s a hallucinogenic conjoining of 1948’s The Snake Pit and 1973’s Sisters, the heroine trapped in an unthinkable situation and forced to think her way out.
The screenplay is slightly more ambitious than it needs to be. First it’s a De Palma disciple, then it’s a big business condemnation (it’s revealed that this hospital often locks up perfectly healthy people to meet their required quota), and then it’s a woman-refuses-to-be-ruined-by-her-abuser thriller for the #MeToo era. Pick any one of these narrative components and we’d still be blessed with a compelling and economic sensation. But there’s so much going on, there’s a feeling that Bernstein and Greer weren’t exactly sure where to go after Sawyer is essentially imprisoned, and decided a lack of direction could be made up for by going in every possible direction.
But Unsane still gets under our skin. Once we discover that Sawyer’s stalker has infiltrated the scene, the film becomes a tightrope walk and never loses sight of its almost unbearable tension. (I like how plausibly Sawyer acts when trying to navigate how the hell she’s going to get out of this night terror of a world.)
There are a number of supremely jittery sequences that are at once piercingly unnerving and culturally pressing too. Among the standouts is a flashback that recounts everything Sawyer had to do to protect her from her stalker in the months previously. A cameoing Matt Damon, playing a police officer, walks her through how her life will be altered now that she will forever be running away from a dangerous someone. It’s horrifying. But then comes an extraordinarily acted scene in which Sawyer is alone with the film’s antagonist – he tries to assert his dominance, but she won’t let him. With no one watching, she verbally eviscerates him with impressive gusto. It's the film’s best scene. How satisfying it is for a victim to gain the upper hand just through a hailstorm of vicious words.
Foy and Soderbergh keep us anchored even when the film leans into its pulpier characteristics. The former gives a blazing, slightly unhinged performance that redefines the meaning of the final girl. And Soderbergh’s direction might become the urtextual example of prestigious, mainstream iPhone filmmaking – it suits this material so well, and is so smartly conceived, it seems poised to inspire filmmakers with an inclination for experimentation in the future. It must be seen to be believed. Soderbergh recently said that he plans on making more iPhone-oriented movies down the road – and given all that Unsane does well, I say greenlight these projects. When executed well, innovation can lead to interesting, provocative works of art. And nobody does deviation from the norm better than the ever-curious Soderbergh. B+
This review also appeared on Verge Campus.