For "The Fifteen Minute Rule" I watch a film in 15 minute segments, at the end of each segment allowing myself the option to continue, quit or skip to the end. Regardless of my choice, I write up the experience here.
Due to the nature of the discussion, I must discuss the entirety of what I watch, so spoilers abound. You have now been warned. Complain at your own peril.
Amount of film watched: Full film
There's a current M.O. in recent horror movies where the whole film essentially breaks down into one question: Is she crazy, or is this stuff really happening? And I'm not using "she" to be politically correct and gender non-assumptive, it's almost always a woman. Because ladies be crazy, am I right, fellas??? The problem with these movies is that you understand the game straight away. About fifteen minutes in, once our main girl starts seeing things nobody else does the question is all laid out, and then you usually end up just sitting around for another hour and fifteen minutes waiting for the answer to show up. And when it does, you say, "Oh, ok." And then you've seen the movie. Congratulations.
"Lovely Molly" is one of these movies, but it's certainly one of the better ones. Directed by Eduardo Sanchez, one of the minds behind "The Blair Witch Project," the movie moves at a fast pace and is populated by interesting, empathetic characters. Well, largely interesting and empathetic.
The story follows Molly and Tim, played by a very game Gretchen Lodge and Johnny Lewis, two newlyweds who move into Molly's old family home that was the site of at least one significant tragedy. Spooky occurences begin, and soon Molly is falling into some nasty old habits and exhibiting some exceptionally strange behavior. So seriously, is she crazy or what?
Sanchez has two strong talents, and they're frequently undervalued. First, he knows how to build tension naturally. He doesn't need jump scares or music cues, he uses distance and shadow, he invests in action and reaction, he uses Matt Davies excellent sound design to seemlessly shift the soundtrack from natural to ambient to creepy and threatening. Secondly, he knows how to get natural reactions out of actors in absurd, heightened and sometimes very hammy situations. He doles out little bits of information at just the right times, and has his performers react at a real and relatable level. A particular standout is Alexandra Holden, who plays Molly's sister Hannah, a role that could easily have slipped into narrative machinery or exaggerated cliche, but is instead a very complex and thoughtful performance. This is extremely difficult, and doesn't get its due because when it works it looks easy. But if you want to see what it looks like when it doesn't work, just watch how the movie totally stops during the couple of scenes with the minister, the only parts of the movie where that level of emotional truth goes awry.
In fact, Sanchez's talent for emotional realism may be one of the movie's greatest faults. You see, Molly has a drug problem. She's put it WELL into her past when we meet her at the beginning, but the emotional triggers of the house send her stumbling back into abuse. The scenes of emotional vulnerability and drug relapse work so well you could completely lose the "supernatural" elements and have a perfectly good, engaging story, which makes sense because part of the film's construction is keeping that "is she or isn't she crazy" plate spinning and the only way to do that is to make sure both options remain viable at all times. But still, at the end I was left wondering what would have happened if Sanchez had just let his genre trappings go and make a straight movie about addiction?
To me, part of the joy and power of the horror genre is in taking real world issues like race, gender, addiction, fear of the unknown, oppressive forces, and so on and so on, and investigating them through abstraction and exaggeration. So what happens when a horror movie largely eschews abstraction except when it wants to crank up the spooky?
The movie comparison I kept coming back to throughout "Lovely Molly" was "The Shining," another story of a recovering addict falling back into extraordinarily bad behavior due to some sinister architecture. However, in "The Shining" there's no question that madness is afoot, largely due to multiple characters witnessing strange events. Therefore, being firmly rooted in the uncanny, the movie is free to explore its points, parallels and allegories while reaching to the lofty heights of expressionism that tend to mark the better entries into the horror canon.
There's no exploration in "Lovely Molly" because everything is set up straight and blunt from the get go. Is the movie saying addiction is like a kind of possession, wherein you become a completely different person in the thrawl of intoxicants? Maybe. Or maybe Molly's actually just possessed. And if that's the case, then what is the movie ACTUALLY saying about addiction? If it doesn't have anything to say, then are they just using a realistic portrayal of an actual, horrible, debilitating affliction to goose their spookiness a bit? That seems crass, more crass than I'd like to think Sanchez is setting out to be.
Which brings us to the abuse angle. Most of these movies, the kind I outlined in the opening paragraph, in some ways deal with sexual, usually incestual, abuse. Now, I don't want to say you can never make a horror movie that engages with themes like sexual assault, but I think the key word there is "engage." Are you really engaging with sexual assault when you're primarily using it as your main character's raison du crazy? As much as the movie handled the drug abuse well, the sexual abuse, and the fallout of that sexual abuse, is largely saved for third act reveals, which means it's not really handled much at all. Even so, there's one moment when a character simply turns away from a desperate phone message that is an effective, heavy moment that shows the possible dramatic heights the movie could have reached if it had chosen its path and stuck to it.
In the end the viewer is left to come up with a lot of the story on their own, although I'd argue that the movie comes down pretty heavily on the side of actual possession. Of course, someone else could easily say it was all in her head, and I think Sanchez would argue that we're both right, it doesn't really matter what side you come down on, so long as you come down on a side.
To bring up another counterpoint film, the ending of 2011's "Take Shelter" allows the viewer to see what's on screen as literal or metaphorical, both interpretations are valid. However, that movie isn't ABOUT whether or not the main character is crazy or is literally having visions. The film is about family and support and how we all weather the storms in our lives, so how you see that ending does MATTER in that it says something about who you are and how you not only view the film, but how you view the world.
It's fine to have an ending that is unclear and interprative. What is NOT fine is for that choice to not matter. That is a failure, and unfortunately it is one that "Lovely Molly," in many other respects a very accomplished horror film, suffers from greatly.