Horror

‘Presence’ Poises to Deliver Waves Of Terror, But Instead Falters


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Read Chad Collins’ review out of Panic Fest 2022.

Presence

There was a period in the mid-to-late 80s where what ultimately amounted to conventional slasher movies, possessed by the spirit of Freddy Krueger himself, were cosmically compelled to imbue their narrative with supernatural overtones. Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II, Bad Dreams, and even the Friday the 13th series shifted their trajectory to magic shows and illusory tricks. Christian Schultz’s Presence, premiering at this year’s Panic Fest, would sit nicely alongside the black magic horror from forty years ago. That doesn’t necessarily make it good. But Schultz’s intentions are laudable, paying homage to a waning subgenre where atmosphere supersedes narrative cohesion.

Jenna Lyng Adams stars as Jennifer. She’s first introduced in Louisiana for less than a minute before the narrative regresses back three weeks to New York City. Jennifer is tired and plagued by arcane nightmares. At first, they’re little more than a filmmaker’s showcase replete with neon lights, bursts of flames, and off-kilter savagery. As Presence progresses, the nightmares are rendered clearer as Jen’s mental wellbeing continues to decline. She’s also been incapable of getting in touch with her friend, Sam (Alexandria Deberry), for several weeks. She traipses through life, in clear decline. Then, Sam arbitrarily reaches out and invites Jen on a week-long yachting trip with David (Dave Davis). He’s a potential investor intent on making both Jen and Sam millionaires.

Also Read: ‘The Creeping’: A Classic, and Scary, Classic Haunted House Tale [Panic Fest 2022 Review]

Homage runs rampant, though intentionally or not. Presence bears a great deal in common with The Slayer. J.S. Cardone’s 1982 supernatural slasher follows Sarah Kendall’s Kay who embarks on a weekend trip after enduring gruesome nightmares detailing the deaths of those closest to her. Schultz, in the early goings, considerably grounds the efficacy of Jen’s nightmares, unnerving the audience no differently than Jen. They’re cryptic, odd, and strangely alluring. As presages for what’s likely to come, inciting tension is thick, especially since both Sam and David are uncannily off. Ostensibly normal, they’re clearly hiding ulterior motives. En route to Puerto Rico, both Jen and the audience are given little to do. They just endure the weirdness as answers are slowly unspooled.

Those answers are what ultimately sink Presence. Anyone who has seen a possession movie before knows exactly where Schultz is going. While the look and acting are elevated—the yacht itself is a thing of beauty and adds considerable gravitas to an admittedly intimate supernatural yarn—there are straight lines where the plot should twist, weave, and bob. The innate strangeness of Jen’s nightmares is never successfully translated for the audience. The narrative is frustratingly consigned to being as straightforward as possible when a touch of weirdness would have gone a long way. Conventional narrative beats progress as expected—rising action, climax, falling action—and arcane nightmare sequences lose their luster. With no clear tangible impact on the physical world until the end, it all amounts to a yacht full of fantastic atmosphere, great performances, and middling scares.

Also Read: ‘The Creeping’: A Classic, and Scary, Classic Haunted House Tale [Panic Fest 2022 Review]

While Presence does have some inspired sequences—one mid-movie beat set to Edith Piaf’s “Adieu mon coeur” adds classic, old Hollywood gravitas—it’s too committed to understanding to really set its strange, beating heart ablaze. Toward the end, one character quite literally remarks, “I’d like to give you some answers”. It conceptualizes the worst of what Presence has to offer. Every time it seems committed to something transgressive and distinct, it course-corrects in a desperate attempt to ensure the audience isn’t lost. While a little cohesion is appreciated, hand-holding horror threatens to alienate more than invest.

Far from an outright failure, Presence amounts to being simply fine. Performances and setting elevate the familiar material. In the early beats, there’s enough unnerving strangeness and obscurity to warrant a watch. It’s a shame the destination is such a dud. But Presence will likely resonate well, perhaps as only a gateway for the antecedent works that inspired it.

Summary

Presence is stylish and well-acted, but its supernatural scares fall flat

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