Sometimes as I'm wading through my annual diet of Shocktober fright flicks, I get worn down by convention. Mercifully there's always the realm of independent horror, which often can be counted on to smash expectations and venture to dark places where studio films often fear to tread.
Unfortunately, you also run the risk of trudging through some pretty amateurish shlock.
Mercifully, Stained is an original study in mental fragility and the ravages of past trauma. It also has a pretty grim view of the male of the species, which, frankly is somewhat justified. Any woman who's ever felt as if she's gone a little bit Coo-Coo for Cocoa Puffs after witnessing or suffering through childhood/formative abuses of the heart will probably find a lot to relate to here.
Check out the film's trailer before we dive into the nitty-gritty:
Tinsel Korey plays Isabelle, the owner of a used bookstore located in a major metropolitan city. She's plagued by an economically shaky present and a downright traumatic past. Whenever she's besieged by stress, the camera surreptitiously catches her idly massaging a nasty-looking suicide scar on her wrist.
Like most women who chafe under the constant pressure to find validation through relationships, Isabelle is goaded into a date with the meat-headed but well-meaning Rolf (Stephen Huszar). During their awkward time together, Isabelle displays a hypersensitivity to every possible subject ranging from her parentage to the quality of her baked goods. When Rolf tries to touch her, she go ballistic and kicks him out of her apartment.
Through an initially stingy dribble of flashbacks, we eventually discover that Isabelle was immersed in an abusive relationship with a jackass named James (Tim Fellingham). Like a bad penny, this toxic creep suddenly turns up from out of nowhere and the two start seeing each other once again. Naturally, this re-union only serves to deepen her emotional turmoil. Sisterly Jennifer (Sonja Bennett) seems to sense looming disaster and tries to keep tabs on her childhood friend as best she can.
A string of nasty events continues to inflate the powder keg of Isabelle's deteriorating mental state. Urged on by Jennifer, she initiates yet another ugly break-up with James. In order to keep the bookstore afloat, she's forced to dismiss an explosively hostile employee. She begins to feel as if she's being watched inside the store and then followed on the way home.
One day Isabelle returns home to find that her cats have killed a pigeon and tracked blood all over the floor. This unpleasant image triggers a complete breakdown and, in a torrent of flashbacks, we finally get to see why Isabelle is so damaged. This is further cemented when we learn about the unconventional nature of her initial break up with James.
The first half of Stained is sometimes maddeningly vague and distracting. Many of the flashbacks are image-based and don't contribute much to the narrative. There are also more gratuitous shots of cats then I could ever hope to shoot a spray bottle at. Granted the sketchy flashbacks can be interpreted as Isabelle's repressed memories slowly coming to the surface and the cats can be seen as thematically relevant, but these things also feel a tad self-indulgent, like the narrative equivalent of barrels being thrown into Mario's path during a game of Donkey Kong.
But then something gleefully unexpected happens. Perhaps influenced by Takashi Miike's Audition, the last third of the film calmly removes the kid gloves and begins the pay off the vagaries. All of the disparate pieces of the film's somewhat disjointed first half start to fall into place. As if that wasn't cool enough, the finale gives us no less then three wrinkles guaranteed to inspire distinct reactions from the viewer.
For the record, my reactions were (in order) "Aha! I knew it!" then "Oh, crap!" and finally "WTF!?!"
In fact, the conclusion is so imaginative and unconventional that it retroactively repaired some of the issues I had up to that point. For example, Jennifer's husband Dave (Stephen Lobo) initially comes across as a selfish, emotionally manipulative man-child. When Jennifer tells Dave that she's driving into the city to help Isabelle, his reaction would certainly confound the average male viewer. However, taken in context with future revelations, it becomes somewhat justified if not completely logical.
For a modestly budgeted indie horror film, the technical aspects of the production are quite strong. There are lovingly beautiful captures of the Prairies at sunset and great use of film speed, filters, angles and effects. Director Karen Lam employs a slew of subtle visual clues that gives the unconscious mind something to gnaw on while we're watching. For example, I love the shot where Isabelle wakes up after a very bad night and finds herself lying in the same pose she found her ill-fated mother in.
Lam also demonstrates the importance of audio in horror films. In addition to using music to evoke an emotional reaction from the audience, she also has a lot of fun tweaking the white noise. Occasionally she'll uses a Lynchian low rumble on static shots to create unease or distort the volume of a telephone conversation to create distance. All of these sly techniques help to convey Isabelle's deteriorating mental state.
The performances are all pretty good for an indie film as well. Tinsel Korey is asked to go through the mental wringer here as Isabelle. She's generally quite solid, although sometimes her 'distress' would seem more appropriate if she'd just dropped a glass of milk on the floor. Sonja Bennett is miraculously sympathetic as her pregnant pal. Tim Fellingham expertly channels "asshole" vibes as James. Steph Song is refreshingly natural for her limited screen time. And finally, Anna Mae Routledge is great as the slightly skanky, creatively disgruntled Janna.
Even in light of the film's boffo ending, I still have some unresolved issues. I find Jennifer's unquestioning willingness to help her friend with the most distasteful of tasks really strained the film's credibility for me. The first half, with its seemingly endless scenes of Isabelle coming and going from her apartment, still feels somewhat tedious. Finally, all of the male characters in the film are either scary ogres, abusive dicks or total milksops. Having said that, I can certainly forgive this as "sauce for the goose", mainly because the number of movies featuring universally unflattering portrayals of women certain outnumbers this alternative.
By the time the movie settles into a stronger narrative and the flashbacks become increasingly relevant to what's going on, Stained begins to surprise the viewer pretty consistently. And frankly, considering the creative bankruptcy exhibited by most "product" cranked out by the major studios, surprise is a very rare and precious commodity nowadays.