Off-beat thriller has four teens smoking pot and goofing around and when the roughhousing gets a little out of hand, one of the teens (Max Talisman) is accidentally killed. The story then focuses on best friends Josh (Charlie Tahan) and Zach (Owen Campbell) as the emotional strain of covering up the boy’s death starts to tear their friendship apart and change the youths drastically. Add in the presence of a pretty mutual love interest (Elizabeth Cappuccino) and the situation may once again become deadly.
Film is directed with a refreshing low-key style by Kevin Phillips from a script by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, who wrote Siren. It’s a tense little movie that portrays not only the awkwardness of teen emotions very well, but the unraveling of not being able to handle something tragic. Josh and Zach react in different ways which pushes them toward a volatile situation. It’s a slow burn, but one worth watching. The last act violence seems s little over-the-top compared to the quieter nature of the rest of the film, but works in the context of teenagers dealing with emotions that would challenge most adults. The young cast of mostly unknowns (Tahan was in The Harvest) are very good and the leads in particular show potential. An atmospheric and occasionally disturbing thriller. Also stars Sawyer Barth as the fourth teen in the scenario, Charlie.
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Thriller is the return to the director’s chair of James McNaughton, who is most known for the cult classic Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer. The story is of Andy (Charlie Tahan), a very ill young boy who lives a secluded and guarded life in his rural home. His over-protective mother Katherine (Samantha Morton) is a doctor and surgeon herself and oversees his treatment while his meek father Richard (Michael Shannon) follows along. A young girl named Maryann (Natasha Calis) moves into a house nearby and becomes curious about her reclusive young neighbor. She visits Andy and the two quickly bond. Katherine, however, takes a very quick dislike to this new development and as Maryann continually finds ways to see Andy, Katherine’s behavior becomes more unhinged and aggressive. Worst still, while hiding from Katherine in the basement of the house, Maryann makes a shocking discovery that could not only turn Andy’s odd life upside down but, quite possibly mean he’s in danger as well!
McNaughton directs Stephen Lancellotti’s script well enough, though, there should have been more tension and suspense, especially in the last act. The story starts out almost as some kind of Lifetime drama about an ill boy befriending a spirited girl then turns into something more like Misery when Katherine’s behavior degenerates and she starts to go all Kathy Bates. There are some very disturbing moments here, especially with the big reveal about two thirds of the way through. What we discover is unexpected, a bit twisted and takes an even more bizarre turn later on. While it is very unsettling, the film never gets truly as intense as it should considering what is happening and what is at stake. It becomes a bit of a fight for life that just felt like it needed more urgency. The film also comes to a sad and tragic “Frankenstein-ish” climax that is oddly appropriate, though that gets a bit neutered somewhat by a corny, happy ending last scene that almost feels tacked on. McNaughton is given upsetting enough material to work with here, but, never really brings it to a full boil to really make this thriller the gut punch it should be. It’s a little too laid back. It still works well though, and George S. Clinton provides an atmospheric score and there is crisp cinematography from Rachel Morrison in support of the story and it’s events.
The acting from the cast is very good with Samantha Morton really delivering a disturbing performance as the unstable Katherine. She goes from concerned and a bit smothering to overbearing, paranoid and outright psychopathic by the story’s end. While she does remind us of Kathy Bates’ Annie, she is all the more frightening as she is a mother and a doctor and her behavior contradicts both by her actions. Michael Shannon is intriguing as Richard. A docile man who has gone along with his much stronger-willed wife for far too long and it is starting to break him. No more evident than his tolerance of Maryann and his affair with a pretty drug company rep (Meadow Williams) which seems in direct rebellion to Katherine’s demented wishes. Natasha Calis is very good as Maryann. A strong-willed young girl and quite feisty and resourceful in her fight to free Andy from his suffering at his parents’ hands…even without much support from the adults around her. As Andy, Charlie Tahan gives us a frail and sympathetic young man who we care about, especially when we find out the hidden truths Maryann uncovers. He also can be quite rebellious in his own way, when he wants to be. Rounding out are Leslie Lyles and Peter Fonda who are perfectly charming as Maryann’s kindly grandparents who, unfortunately, don’t seem in a hurry to get involved when Maryann tells of Andy’s plight.
Despite needing a bit more intensity to the proceedings this is a disturbing thriller and a very well-acted one. There are some unsettling revelations that are legitimately surprising and very likable characters in Andy and Maryann. Samantha Morton creates a character that is both Mommie Dearest and Dr. Frankenstein and even if the film needed a bit more strength, she creates a very unnerving portrayal, as does Michael Shannon as a man who has been following her lead for far too long. A film that entertains and disturbs even if not fully living up to it’s potential or the reputation of it’s director.
Burning Bright is named after a verse in a poem by William Blake titled The Tyger and as this film is about a young woman and her little brother tapped inside a house with such a beast, it is quite appropriate for this surprisingly effective horror/thriller.
The film takes place in Florida and opens with the purchase of a Bengal tiger by John Gaveneau (Garret Dillahunt) from a shady individual (Meatloaf) for a safari exhibit he plans to open. We then cut to pretty Kelly (Briana Evigan) trying to find care for her 12 year old autistic brother Thomas (Charlie Tahan), so she can take advantage of a scholarship she’s been offered. But The money from her recently deceased mother’s account is gone, taken by her step-father, the predator purchasing John. An argument ensues when she returns to the house, but that is nothing compared to waking up the next morning to find the home boarded up for an approaching category 3 hurricane and… that she and Thomas have a very large feline guest sealed inside with them. It seems John needs all the cash he can to turn the family property into that little safari attraction and he’s not above taking out life insurance policies on Kelly and Thomas and locking them inside the house with his latest and very hungry acquisition to ensure their demise and an insurance check. Now Kelly must somehow fend for her life and her little brother’s against one of the world’s most dangerous predators with nowhere to run and no way out.
While the story might be a little convoluted, director Carlos Brooks gives us some really intense action sequences and some nail-biting suspense scenes as Kelly tries to outwit and escape the hungry predator in a limited space. A laundry chute scene is one of the film’s highlights. He makes really good use of the isolated setting of Christine Coyle Johnson, Julie Prendiville Roux and David Higgins’ script and successfully creates the atmosphere of being trapped, isolated and in constant danger. The plot device of there being a raging hurricane outside adds to the tension, but also provides a legitimate excuse for the windows to be boarded up well before Kelly and Thomas go to bed for the night, eliminating the implausibility of it being done without waking them. The director establishes the layout of the house quickly and thus we know where Kelly is going and yet, also where the tiger might be coming from…might. The house is small enough to be claustrophobic yet, large enough so the stalking cat can uncomfortably disappear at times. Brooks creates a true game of cat and mouse between the beast and the very resourceful Kelly, who not only has to deal with the tiger, but an uncooperative autistic brother who tends to wander off or get difficult at the worst possible moments. It’s a plot device that works very well. The use of real tigers in the production also adds to realism and thus the suspense, and the film looks very good on what was probably a modest budget.
Also helping Brooks make this work and so well, is a really strong performance by young Briana Evigan. The daughter of TV actor Greg Evigan, does a great job carrying the film on her shoulders and really sells the character of a woman who is terrified but resourceful and determined enough to fight to survive. She also comes across very genuine, early on, as a young woman who loves her brother very much yet, needs to make difficult decisions concerning him, so she can move forward in her own life. I can’t stress how this movie would not have worked as well without Miss Evigan nailing the feisty, intelligent, strong-willed and compassionate Kelly. Young New Jersey native Charlie Tahan does a really good job of portraying the mentally challenged Thomas and his realistic portrayal makes it work when, the boy ignores immediate danger to get difficult. The character is also treated with respect to the condition portrayed, so it never veers into exploitation territory or appears insensitive. Gaveneau has very little screen time, but you get the impression that the guy is a weenie and a douche, so he makes a successful villain even though he is absent through most of the flick. A good cast with a very impressive leading lady and three very effective feline actors portraying our creature in question.
Overall, this is a very suspenseful and entertaining movie and a very underrated and unappreciated horror. Sure the plot to kill Kelly and Thomas seems a bit extravagant, though it earns points for inventiveness. The film has some flaws, such as the plot element of Kelly feeding the animal raw hamburger with sleeping (?) pills mixed in that goes nowhere, but skilled direction from Carlos Brooks and a dynamite performance from our leading lady turn this into a first rate thriller that never lets up. Recommended for a fun and nail-biting 90 minutes that is a bit of a change from the usual horror! The DVD also has a nice documentary about the making of the film and we get to meet our three feline actors and see how they were cleverly composited into the scenes with Evigan, who is also interviewed.