HELD (2021)

Greetings again from the darkness. Co-directors Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing previously collaborated on the horror film, THE GALLOWS (2015), and this time they are working from a script by Jill Awbrey, who also stars. It’s Ms. Awbrey’s first feature film as a writer or actor. Most people agree that marriage can be challenging, but this one introduces thrills and chills into a relationship that’s already navigating in choppy waters.

Writer Awbrey (a Julie Harris lookalike) plays Emma Barrett, who we see in an early flashback as a young woman trapped in a car with two men. We don’t see it, but we know what’s about to happen against her will. Today’s Emma is then seen again in the backseat … as her Uber driver (Rez Kempton) asks inappropriate questions, and comes across more than a bit creepy as he notes the remoteness of her drop-off and pressures her for a bonus tip. These two scenes remind us of how women must always have their defense mechanism on high alert around men.

Emma and her husband Henry (Bart Johnson, HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL) have set up a rendezvous to see if they can rekindle what’s waning between them after 9 years of marriage. We get an aerial view of the ultra-modern and ultra-smart house stuck in a cornfield miles from civilization. The terror and mystery begin the next morning when Emma and Henry wake up in different clothes and with missing phones. A “voice” tells them that the secrets of their marriage are no longer secret, and they must “obey”. If not, the implanted sensor behind their ear will act as a shock collar, causing extreme discomfort and pain. Emma and Henry both experience this the hard way.

The film appears to be a VRBO home invasion movie wrapped in the contemporary issue of surveillance and security. However, that’s only part of the story. The “voice” is pushing the couple into a 1950’s version of THE STEPFORD WIVES, replete with veggies in the fridge, modest wardrobes in the closet, and an apron for Emma. She is being coerced into acting like a submissive wife, as if anyone today still fantasizes about a 1950’s marriage. It’s disturbing to watch as Emma and Henry try to find a way to escape, while not triggering another jolt of pain, and complying with commands from the voice (who seems to be Jigsaw from the SAW series transformed into a marriage counselor).

The objective here seems to be as satire and commentary on male privilege in a male-dominated society … one where women always carry a bit of fear, despite being so much stronger and forceful than what we saw in 1950’s TV series. That traditional marital structure no longer exists, but when combined with a luxurious smart house, does make for an interesting premise in the horror-thriller genre. When save-the-marriage transitions to survival mode on top of fear of being watched and manipulated, the terror is palpable. The only frustration is that so much more could have been done, over and above the twist. Despite the lags, the film does provide ‘talking points’.

In theaters and On Demand April 9, 2021


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