Sun Choke ✮✮1/2

Persona Redux

By Glenn Lovell

A mostly muted horror entry punctuated by explosions of graphic violence, Ben Cresciman’s sophomore release “Sun Choke” takes its sweet time unfolding. The director-writer is stingy with the facts surrounding his pent-up protagonist’s predicament. Is the at times infantile Janie, played by Sarah Hagan, a prisoner in her own home because she’s agoraphobic, a suicide risk, a self-loathing sex addict? Or is she just one more garden-variety loony?

These questions are answered – well, sort of – by story’s end, but we still exit hungry for more backstory to unlock the source of Janie’s crippling psychosis.

Inspired equally by Polanski’s “Repulsion” and a number of Ingmar Bergman’s moody psychodramas, “Sun Choke” takes half of its title from the electrified dog collar used to keep theposter straying Janie indoors. She’s fitted with the device by Irma, her pale, soft-spoken caregiver/therapist, played to perfection by scream queen Barbara Crampton, whose genre credits date to the original “Re-Animator.”

Irma practices a questionable blend of holistic medicine and torturous yoga better suited to a World War 2 POW camp in “Unbroken.” To reach some Yen-like balance Janie is told to assume the one-legged stork position and “Be the reflection of the moon over the water.”

Just so her wayward ward knows she means business, Irma demonstrates two of the three power settings on the collar. One is headache inducing, two leaves her cowering in pain. Try to exit the compound, she’ll feel the full force of the device.

Slow-paced and exactingly staged — Janie is usually tightly framed, Irma viewed from a low angle —  “Sun Choke” is awash in the brilliant whites of a Marrakech market at noon. This visual scheme underscores Janie’s pseudo-dream state, her alienation and fragile hold on reality.

“Sun Choke” veers from arty to exploitive when, during her nocturnal jaunts, Janie becomes obsessed with a woman named Savannah (Sara Malakul Lane), even catnapping in the stranger’s bed, showering in her bathroom … seducing her boyfriend. It’s here that the earlier master-slave dynamic is reversed and Janie takes a blood-stained page from Carol, Polanski’s seriously repressed character in “Repulsion.” In short, the bodies begin to pile up.

While Cresciman doesn’t quite braid his narrative strands into a cohesive whole, he does succeed in weaving a most peculiar spell as he ratchets up the suspense. It’ll be interesting to see which track he takes from here — the high-minded or the lowbrow, the Bergman-esque or DePalma trippy. If he wants to continue making movies, the path ahead is pretty obvious.

SUN CHOKE With Sarah Hagan, Barbara Crampton, Sara Malakul Lane. Directed-written by Ben Cresciman. 83 min. Unrated (would be R for full-frontal nudity, graphic violence)

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