Newlyweds Molly (Gretchen Lodge) and Tim (Johnny Lewis) move into Molly’s old childhood home, both her parents having been dead some years. It is a large rural house, filled with the objects and detritus of Molly and her sister’s childhood, and things that belonged to their parents including her father’s collection of equestrian paraphernalia. Tim, who works as a truck driver is frequently away from home for days (and nights) at a time and it is in these times of petrifying loneliness that things begin to happen.
Molly is a recovering addict with mental health problems, and it becomes apparent fairly quickly within the film that both she and her sister’s childhood were marred by sexual abuse. Molly’s resulting loss of control and the disintegration of the barrier between the main character’s persona and that of her long-dead abuser places this piece of filmmaking easily amongst those I would call the most frightening films I’ve ever seen.
Much like Eduardo Sánchez‘s earlier work, The Blair Witch Project, we are experiencing the story through found footage. A lot of this is filmed directly by Molly herself but also by employing an audience’s perspective through point-of-view filming. Whilst the eye grows accustomed to the cinematography there is unpredictability to the choices made by Sanchez which instil unease.
In a debut role of incredible intensity, Gretchen Lodge produces both a raw and uncomfortably still performance, a powerful juxtaposition. The performances overall are not flawless; there are moments when the actors break the suspension of disbelief with a clunk but Lodge always reasserts it with her convincing terror. This is not always overt and loud either. In one simple scene, Molly alone in the house has to turn off a lamp in a bedroom she does not want to enter. Her furtive duck in and then rapidly out as darkness shrouds the room is eerily evocative of being a child afraid of a dark corner.
Aside from the lead’s formidable performance and a few moments of visceral violence, much of the horror in the film is communicated through dialogue and sound design. The American experimental rock band Tortoise provides the eerie fusion of folk and nightmare which defines the score. If the words; “Hello…Gordon…” Originating from Brad Anderson‘s Session 9, make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end you are in for something even more affecting. By merging sound design and dialogue Sanchez creates a non-human character. For ninety-nine percent of the film, there is nothing visual about the demon which is stalking Molly. The nightmarish presence is continually emphasized by Barbara Delpuech’s sound design; the clip-clopping of horse hooves in empty halls, tiny snatches of words, lullabies, and the low huff of animal breath. There are also subtle changes in the texture of the soundtrack in this creature’s presence, utilizing that oppressive persistent drone that worked so cleverly for the first Paranormal Activity film.
The question of whether what we’re seeing is ‘real’ or ‘imagined’ is a constant one, but Lovely Molly handles the idea with a worrying deftness. Demons don’t need to conform to such a binary- they are always real to those who experience them. Whether you categorize Eduardo Sánchez’s film as a haunted house movie or a psychological horror the outcome is the same. It’s about demons, specifically those originating from abuse.
The way victims and survivors of sexual abuse are handled and portrayed in horror films are often riddled with problems. These are complex issues that are too often reduced to tropes or portrayed in insultingly simple ways. Lovely Molly is no exception, and there is cause to question some of its choices- even the central arc of the film is open to debate on this. The one hole Lovely Molly doesn’t fall into is the idea that vengeance somehow makes right a terrible abuse. There is an entire genre dedicated to this but Coralie Fargeat’s 2017 film Revenge springs to mind. Instead, Lovely Molly is well acquainted with the idea that the terrible thing has already happened. Be it through paranormal means or the quite normal operation of trauma it is, in a way, still happening, still unfolding, and still affecting the person and world around the protagonist. The result is a singularly unhappy and difficult film, the mixed reviews that followed its release are not a surprise.
If you recall the famous painting The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli you will get a clue of the both otherworldly and tragically mundane horror contained here. There aren’t many films I would genuinely urge people not to watch when they’re alone in a house, but this is one of them.