“Isn’t that heaven on earth. It’s the way a marriage should be, before feminism and political-correctness muddied the waters. Simpler. Better times.“
Directed by the duo behind Blumhouse’s The Gallows, Chris Lofing and Travis Cliff, Frightfest official selection HELD sees a departure from the supernatural horror aspect. With some #MeToo movement subtext, HELD bolsters more of a psychological isolated-setting thriller for our current sociopolitical landscape. Emma and Harry Berrett are a seemingly normal couple with their marriage on the rocks. Their relationship is put to the test when their anniversary at a secluded vacation smart house rental is interrupted by an unknown voice that seems to watch and hear their every action. Over the course of a night, this disembodied voice begins ordering them to do whatever it says at the risk of harming any and all instances of disobedience. Running only a little over the ideal 90min mark (93min), and being set predominantly within a house in the middle of nowhere, HELD naturally…held…a genre/style advantage in my books. You do know how I love my locked-room thrillers!
After an efficiently brisk 20min set-up for our two characters, the isolated modern tech house, and the unknown threat, the thrills and an effectively chilling score kick in. With all-seeing cameras in every room, the disembodied voice controls every aspect of this couple’s once thought weekend getaway: ranging from dress code, dining etiquette, politeness, generosity, and more. The #MeToo parallels effectively come to fruition as the voice begins prodding and enforcing traditionally dated gender role dynamics: electrocuting the woman when she tries to be the one to open the door, forcing the woman to do the cooking, ordering the woman to dress and smile in particular manners. Actor turned filmmaker Leigh Whannell‘s The Invisible Man reboot comes to mind when writing about HELD, giving us a glimpse into what it might have been for Elisabeth Moss‘ Kass living in constant fear under Oliver Jackson-Cohen‘s maniacal controlling scientist Adrian.
While I can’t name the exact Blumhouse film HELD heavily borrows from—as to not spoil the reveal—I did still enjoy the predictable all too possibly real look behind its curtain. A tactically implemented aspect ratio shift into full-screen really aided in the context of the particular scene. Ever since my pick for best of Sundance 2021, Censor, I’ve been really attentive to aspect ratio shifts, and do hope more films put the capably immersive technique to use. The real horror of HELD rests in this particular segment, and just how many real individuals would actually wish it to be an attainable reality. It feels like a story that could have been placed into the Black Mirror universe had it implemented some slightly more futuristic tech perhaps à la Smart House (1999). Suffice it to say, some—like me—are really going to enjoy HELD‘s third act more so than the slowburn tension preceding it. But I can also see some viewers not vibing with the reveal as it can be seen as not built-up towards enough and a little too derivative of other works. If you are wondering though, I did prefer HELD much more than fellow weekend B&B thriller, The Rental.
I’m always interested in individuals going from being behind the camera to infront of it, or vice versa such as the aforementioned Whannel. HELD‘s protagonist, Emma Barrett is actually played by the film’s screenwriter Jill Awbrey, in her acting debut. And quite the debut I must say, as Awbrey’s emotionally committed performance carries the film’s true stakes. Based on her feature film debut performance here, I’m excited to see what else she can deliver. I would have appreciated the second act to explore some more locked-room suspense in order to truly expand the stakes of the couple’s attempts. Despite decent performances—predominantly from Awbrey—I didn’t fully feel for their drastic predicament because the threats weren’t, shall I say, effectively horrific enough to blindly obey the demands of a mysterious being. Had the second act ramped up the violence and the tension derived from a game of cat & mouse, I really think HELD’s fun ending would have been far more amplified and tasteful in its payoff. Nevertheless, I recommend the film to fans of the locked-room thriller.
Film Studies/History graduate, using my love and knowledge of the medium to pass as a critic. To my editor’s chagrin, I typically like to go over my word count in discussing films. Most if not all my reviews are originally written within an hour of finishing the film, so that I can deliver an unfiltered, raw, genuine, in the moment, thought process to you. My taste is eclectic (both in film and music), but I have a strong preference for 80s Cult/Sleaze films, Sci-fi, War, Chambara, Fantasy, and Psychological Thrillers. Thanks for giving us a read and I hope you’ve enjoyed your visit! Long live physical media; long live VHS. Remember: watch whatever, whenever, with whomever.