A married couple endure a particularly horrific form of relationship therapy in the new thriller directed by Chris Lofing and Travis Cluff, the team responsible for the surprise low-budget horror hit The Gallows. Cannily exploiting #MeToo themes and the opportunities for cinematic mayhem provided by technology-driven smart homes, Held proves an uncommonly thoughtful and provocative suspenser.
The story begins with Emma (Jill Awbrey, who also wrote the screenplay) being transported to a luxuriously modernistic, gated rental house by a chatty ride-hailing driver (Rez Kempton). After enjoying the home’s pleasures, including a swimming pool, in solitary fashion, she’s soon joined by her husband Henry (Bart Johnson, here working in far different territory from his recurring role in Disney’s High School Musical franchise).
Will definitely hold your attention.
It soon becomes evident that the reunion is not a happy one, as the couple is clearly undergoing marital tensions on the occasion of their ninth wedding anniversary — not surprising, considering that Emma was recently found out having an extramarital affair. Their attempt at rekindling their romance via a nice dinner and bottle of wine gets curtailed when both begin experiencing dizziness and basically pass out. That’s when the film’s nasty twists begin.
Upon awakening, Emma discovers that her dream of a masked intruder removing her clothes was actually reality. She wakes up in a different, more conservative nightgown, and both she and Henry’s cell phones are missing. Even more strangely, there’s a bouquet of roses and a sweet anniversary note on her nightstand, for which Henry takes no responsibility.
It seems that that a mysterious figure, whose electronically altered voice booms out from every corner of the house, has taken control of the situation, watching their every move and preventing them from leaving. “There are rules, you must obey them,” he intones to the bewildered couple. And to make sure they do, he has surgically implanted electrodes under their skin that deliver painful shocks when they fail to comply.
Even more strangely, the interloper seems less intent on harming the pair than bringing them closer together. And he has distinctly old-fashioned views as to how to go about that. “Stop, a man should open the door for his wife,” he instructs Henry when he fails to behave in gentlemanly fashion. “Smile, and thank your husband,” he then tells Emma. Later, after having programmed the large-screen television to play their wedding video, he orders them to dance. And then he dictates that they make love, even verbally choreographing their movements.
For much of the film’s running time, viewers are as much in the dark as the main characters. The big reveal that eventually occurs shifts the narrative in an entirely different direction that bears more than a little debt to The Stepford Wives, even as the proceedings veer into more graphically violent, horror-tinged territory.
Held doesn’t fully realize its considerable thematic ambitions, and to say that its fantastical storyline isn’t logical is an understatement. Nonetheless, it proves compelling throughout, thanks to the novelty of its premise and the tightly controlled direction by the filmmakers. Their ability to use the camera effectively is demonstrated when the couple, in the midst of their terrors, are forced to sit for a formal dinner and are shown in an overhead shot that emphasizes the emotional distance between them.
The film’s most memorable character ultimately turns out to be its ultra-modernistic, high-tech setting, which proves menacing enough to induce even the earliest adopters to throw their Alexas and the like in the trash.
Available in theaters and VOD
Production companies: Tremendum Pictures
Distributor: Magnet Releasing
Cast: Jill Awbrey, Bart Johnson, Zack Gold, Rez Kempton
Directors: Chris Lofing, Travis Cluff
Screenwriter: Jill Awbrey
Producers: Chris Lofing, Travis Cluff, Kyle Gentz
Executive producers: Brent Powell, Ryan Pratt, Jener Dasilva Sohrab, Sohrabi Thomas Powell, Tyler Myers
Director of photography: Kyle Gentz
Production designer: Max Martinez
Editors: Aaron Tharp, Andy Matthews
Production designer: Max Martinez
Composer: Richard Breakspear
Costume designer: Trina Short