Lovely Molly: Toronto Review

Eduardo Sanchez shows there’s still life in his old “Blair Witch” tricks, launching a promising new talent in Gretchen Lodge.

Newcomer Gretchen Lodge stars in "The Blair Witch Project" co-director Eduardo Sanchez's return to first-person horror.

As early hints give way to irrefutable evidence that evil lurks in the childhood home of the title character in Lovely Molly, a question arises. Given the recovering junkie’s ugly history in that isolated house, which her sister also experienced first-hand and her husband is presumably aware of, why did anyone think it was a good idea for the newly-weds to move in? Probably because if they didn’t there would be no movie. If you can ignore that thought, Eduardo Sanchez’s return to the territory of The Blair Witch Project is another unsettling slice of gripping first-person horror.

Putting video cameras into traumatized characters’ hands is getting a little old as a gimmick, but if anyone deserves a pass on that, it’s probably Sanchez. With co-director Daniel Myrick, he pioneered the conceit in Blair Witch, which then spawned its use in Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity and countless others. Working solo this time, Sanchez uses the device in moderation, flimsily justifying it by making the protagonist a compulsive video diarist. But while it adds harrowing intimacy to the central character’s unraveling, it’s more a stylistic trope than a narrative necessity.

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Sanchez’s biggest asset here is not Molly’s camcorder but the person holding it, exciting screen discovery Gretchen Lodge, who charts the fragile young woman’s helpless slide into madness and possession with haunting full-throttle commitment.

We first see her in a tight shot, weeping into the camera, holding a knife to her throat as she admits, “I’m not in control anymore.” The action rewinds to video footage from Molly’s wedding to Tim (Johnny Lewis), also introducing her sister Hannah (Alexandra Hodge). Since Molly works on the janitorial staff at a local mall, and Tim drives trucks, the couple’s limited finances make moving into her parents’ long-empty home on the edge of a wood their best option. (While the setting is not identified, the film was shot on location in Hagerstown, in northwestern Maryland.)

Mysteriously triggered alarms, and bumps and knocks in the night rattle the couple. But the real indication Molly should have stayed away is the sinister stare captured in photos of her late father all over the house. A local cop alludes to distressing calls from there in the past, venturing that it’s probably best Molly doesn’t recall the details.

With Tim often on the road overnight for work, Molly begins freaking out over odd noises and real or imagined voices, continually drawing her to the childhood bedroom she shared with Hannah. In press materials, Sanchez points to Roman Polanski’s Repulsion as an influence, which is apparent in the physical malevolence of the run-down house, and the insidious hallucinations it generates.

Her behavior growing more erratic, Molly becomes unable to function. Her demons clearly are not confined to the house when a security camera at work captures her being slammed against a wall and violated by an invisible force. Concerned she will revert to her heroin habit, Tim consults a doctor, but medication does little to calm her. And a visit from their church pastor (Field Blauvelt) ends badly when Molly unnerves him with aggressive sexual taunts.

Sanchez’s script leaves some gray areas about what actually happened in the house when Molly and Hannah were children. But the nasty gist of it is clear enough, even if some business with a dead deer and their father’s horse fixation isn’t. Unlike a lot of entries in this horror sub-genre, which tend to be all tease and little carnage, Lovely Molly does spiral into brutal violence and bloodshed, knowingly laying the foundations in its final scene for more supernatural abuse in a possible sequel.

Sanchez and co-editor Andrew Vona keep the action ticking, mixing up the visual field with fluid transitions between Molly’s raw video interludes and more composed, mostly low-light HD footage. The filmmakers keep the chill turned to high, with help from a creepy soundscape that includes subtle music contributions from Chicago prog-rock band Tortoise. But the most mesmerizing element here is Lodge, who makes Molly’s retreat into solitude and unreachable madness both affecting and demonic.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Production companies: Haxan Films, Amber Entertainment
Cast: Gretchen Lodge, Alexandra Hodge, Johnny Lewis, Field Blauvelt
Director/screenwriter/editor: Eduardo Sanchez
Story: Jamie Nash
Producers: Robin Crowe, Gregg Hale, Jane Fleming, Mark Ordesky
Executive producers: Andy Jenkins, Robert Eick
Director of photography: John W. Rutland
Production designer: Andrew White
Music: Tortoise
Co-editor: Andrew Vona
Sales: William Morris Endeavor
No rating, 99 minutes

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