James Cullen Bressack is impossible to ignore. Joyfully divisive, his films often inhabit the darker reaches of genre, and challenge the palate of even the most ardent horror fan. Hate Crime (2012) pushed the home invasion narrative to the breaking point of sinister acceptability. To Jennifer (2013) tested the conventions of found footage filmmaking through a simple story that contained a wicked sting in the tail, and became the flagbearer for wannabe filmmakers everywhere through its reliance on mobile phone technology. Pernicious (2014) then demonstrated that Cullen Bressack could handle a larger production, showcasing an eye for gory, stylish exuberance. Now, the auteur for the Netflix generation releases Bethany (2017), and with what is undoubtedly his most mature work, he has in all likelihood created his best film to date.
As with all Cullen Bressack’s films, the central premise is a simple and familiar one. Moving back into her childhood home, Claire (Stephanie Estes) begins to experience traumatic, often realised memories of past abuses at the hands of her mother. With her husband Aaron (regular collaborator and co-writer Zack Ward) becoming increasingly distant, Claire slowly and painfully discovers the full extent of the horrors her home contains.
Combining stylised, troubling imagery with traditional haunted house tropes, Bethany wilfully preys on the viewer’s confusion by never revealing more than Claire herself discovers. The balance between reality and fantasy become increasingly blurred as seemingly random and terrifying events cryptically begin to plague Claire, while Aaron struggles to empathise with his wife’s affliction. Desperate for answers the couple explore every option, never realising the horrific answer is right in front of them.
Estes is convincing as the beleaguered Claire; a woman caught in an inescapable, ever decreasing circle of terror that only she experiences. It is Ward who most impresses, entirely inhabiting the role of sympathetic husband, unable to understand or empathise with his wife’s suffering, and who grows almost imperceptibly impatient with her plight. Able support is provided by Tom Green, who you always sense is one facial tick away from comedic, and Shannen Doherty as Claire’s mother, the true villain of the piece.
Now in his mid-20s Cullen Bressack is approaching filmmaking able to draw on a staggering amount of experience. Bethany is by no means a perfect film; flaws are evident, from occasionally forced dialogue to effects that often fall short of what today’s audience and, you suspect, Cullen Bressack himself would expect. But given that John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper didn’t make their seminal films until they reached their thirties, for this young man from Los Angeles, Bethany is another step on a career trajectory that could one day equal that of those icons. Impossible to ignore, James Cullen Bressack is one filmmaker you really shouldn’t.
Bethany is available on VOD.