A word of warning to the lovelorn and longing; if your prospective significant other never talks about their childhood at all, there’s a solid possibility they were a haunted kid.  If the aforementioned prospective significant other happens to be a pale, dark haired female, spoiler alert, she is 100% a reformed haunted child.  It’s just science.

I am providing this public service to you, dear reader, because no one gave it to Aaron (Zack Ward), the clueless ginger husband in Bethany.  He is surprisingly cavalier about how little he knows about his wife, but that is sometimes the price you pay to be the audience surrogate. But let’s not put the meta horse before the cart.  Because contrived actions aside, Bethany is actually pretty damn good.

So what are we working with here?  The titular Bethany is our heroine Claire’s (Stefanie Estes) imaginary friend, ostensibly the product of a lonely and psychologically abusive childhood.  Claire was kept isolated from other children and pushed into the child pageant circle by her tiger mother (played by Shannen Doherty in a performance that makes me think all tiger mothers should be played by Shannen Doherty).  After her mother’s death, Claire and Aaron return to the ancestral home where all of Claire’s early trauma occurred and it is pretty immediately evident (to us, not to Aaron) that this is a toxic environment to her.

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Bethany plays on a classic trope of the psychological haunted house movie-to wit, we are told that Claire has been prescribed anti-psychotic drugs, and also she has stopped taking them.  There was a stillborn baby and a suicide attempt.  Aaron is mostly happy-go-lucky, but his sensitivity level varies from “Oh gosh, let me make you some tea” to “Well, your mom just died, we’ve just moved back to the childhood home you’ve told me you had traumatic experiences in, so why not throw another log on the ol’ major life changes fire and crank out a baby, even though the first one died and left you wrecked.”  It is not necessarily surprising, then, that when he discovers Claire’s pills, untaken, he crushes them and puts them into her tea.  I was kind of sympathetic to the ginger doofus until he started dosing his wife.  Guys.  This is never acceptable.

Anyway, in the long established tradition of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, Bethany leans into the ambiguity of the accruing horrors.  Some are simple and mundane; Claire snaps a fingernail off playing piano.  In a scene that severely tested my gag reflex, Aaron eats wet cereal in an increasingly mush mouthed fashion (I can watch someone fictionally get flayed alive with minimal trouble, but a mouth full of masticated corn flakes is where I draw the line), while Claire’s own bowl appears to her filled with cockroaches.  Hallucinating or haunted?  Bethany wisely keeps to the intense claustrophobia of isolation.  By keeping the action focused very tightly on Claire, the question of reality versus psychosis matters less and less.

Horror is a genre that allows a lot of room for interpretation.  But it occurred to me about halfway through Bethany that the movie might be attempting something pretty interesting, a sort of commentary on the nature of how we view women in society. Claire’s mother instills in her young daughter a sense that the most important thing in her life was being pretty. When Claire returns home and things start getting crazy, the movie errs towards body horror.  Claire snaps off a manicured fingernail; strange, coarse black threads sprout from her face, which later starts to sag and droop.  I initially found it odd that Aaron knew so little about his wife, until watched through this lens.  He wanted a cipher.  A blank, pretty page that would smile and support him.  And when she became too difficult for him, he drugged her. I don’t want to imbue this movie with a feminism that isn’t present; but there is certainly room for that reading.

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The movie also pulls some clever tricks with lighting.  It’s possible to track Claire’s mindset through the bluish tones she often sits in, versus the brighter lights Aaron is usually cast in (though often drawn into Claire’s blue vision).  The house itself manages to be both very creepy and incredibly commonplace.  It looks like someone’s actual home, which is a larger compliment than it may seem.  Haunted houses often feel impossibly ornate and difficult.  Stefanie Estes more than pulls her weight as Claire-she plays both the gradual horror but also strange acceptance of a horror movie heroine extremely well.  And Zack Ward acquits himself very well, with some of the clunkiest expository dialogue in the movie (in particular, one speech where he details Claire’s behavior after the initial stillborn child can only possibly be for the audiences benefit, as she was there).  And Shannen Doherty just gnaws the scenery, giving quick fits of sympathy to the mother, but also occasionally going Joan Collins big, as if she were the grandmother in Flowers in the Attic.  This is not a criticism.  I loved it.

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I go into any given horror movie with the same mentality I used to reserve for snow days in school-I have low expectations, so if I get a two hour delay, I am content.  Ladies and gentleman, I am pleased to say Bethany closed the schools for the day.  It is worth your hour and a half.

Bethany opens in theaters and releases on VOD April 7, 2017.

By Kelly Mintzer

Kelly Mintzer hates dolls but loves movies about evil ventriloquist dummies. She is working her way through the “Sandman” series slowly but surely, and has been compared more than once to that iteration of Death. Holding down South Philly with a creative writing degree and the full series of “Hannibal”, she hasn’t seen her natural hair color in years.