I have never been abused. Thank God and whoever else for that! However, I have often wondered how my life might be different had I been so unfortunate. I have wondered how horrors inflicted upon me by a monster (of the human kind) could have made a monster of me. Abuse could have ruined my life and, perhaps, also the lives of those I affect. Bethany, the latest horror from director James Cullen Bressack, makes us consider, reflect upon, and fear possibilities–at least those that could have been–for ourselves, if not for those in a movie. Like a nightmare, Bethany unsettles our sleep, waking us to fears far worse–fears of a real world more terrifying.
What’s it all about? Bethany is the story of a woman of another name—Claire (Stefanie Estes)–a victim of child abuse, now married and moving into the house of her just-deceased mother, aka one of her former abusers. Dysfunctional, delusional, moody, apathetic, even a bit (if not excessively) obnoxious are just a few of the words that describe Claire, all likely results of her experiences in life. Moving into her mother’s house only adds to Claire’s problems, nightmares, and trauma, taking her ever closer to the edge. What’s more is that the house could be haunted by the ghost of her dead mother, and more! Is Claire going crazy, is she really seeing ghosts, or is it a little of both…and something else?
If Claire isn’t crazy, she has surely escaped genes that doom her. Susan (Claire’s mother, played by Shannen Doherty), was, in life, obsessed with physical beauty, entering Claire in endless child pageants, sparing no extreme to win. Evening paying a pageant worker to make her daughter the poster girl crosses no limits. Claire is an extension of Susan–an alter self in youth–as much as an ironic bane of existence and source of jealousy. Susan is a mother who not only needs beauty for her daughter, but also for herself and everything that comes from her body. Anything less brings out the psycho in Susan and the abuse of all who deny her needs. (Beware, if you are the husband helping her create babies!) Is it eternally worse? Yes! This is a woman whose wrath is delivered even in death, exponentially. Intelligently, with Claire’s fear, Bethany asks, “Will I become the monster that created me?” With this, from the beginning, Bethany is elevated above the purely visceral level of the genre’s stereotype.
Stefanie Estes (Mary Last Seen, When Harry Tries to Marry) portays Claire with total dedication, bringing nuances of a damaged character to life, easily. With cold stares, tense tone, and pensive detachment, Estes makes Claire the textbook apathetic adult, poised to be a sociopath at the first opportunity. Yes! It takes as much to restrain oneself, to portray dysfunction just right, as it does to let normality flow forth freely. Estes, indeed, restrains just enough to keep Claire creepy, yet worthy of our impulse to care about her as a human, and as a victim herself. Delivering a character study and profile for psychology, Estes is masterful, perfectly cast as Claire!
“I just don’t see you playing with dolls and stuffed animals, when you were seventeen. I can see you as more of a cherry bomb–a hot chick with a bad attitude.” ~ Aaron
Zack Ward (cowriter of Bethany) stars as Aaron, Claire’s impatient but supportive husband, wanting to be a father, suspicious of what Claire may do to avoid being a mother. Aaron is mostly the typical husband, for better or worse, doting on Claire in her presence, and wary of her when alone. He is practical to a fault, as it is best in horror (rather than reality), doubting his wife’s supernatural claims to the point of tragedy. Ward (well known for his role as Scut Farkus, from A Christmas Story) gives an otherwise stock character more than the usual stereotype, elevating Bethany even higher.
Shannen Doherty (Beverly Hills 90210, Heathers) does a lot with little screen time, in the role of Claire’s mother, Susan. As the cause of Claire’s insanity, fear, and hauntings, in flashbacks of abuse and bribery (you’ll see what I mean), Doherty is perfect! She portrays Susan as an overbearing, beauty-obsessed mother, sure to drive anyone crazy! Cold, selfish, narcissistic, overbearing, and sociopathic to familial extremes, no actor (except, perhaps, Joan Crawford) could do Mommy Dearest better!
“Make sure you use the blush. A princess always makes sure her cheeks are like perfect roses.” ~ Susan
Whenever I see Tom Green, I think of his snake-handling scene in Road Trip…and I laugh, almost as hard every time. When I first heard that he had a part in Bethany, I couldn’t see how I could overcome such memories of serpentine blunder, even in (or maybe more so in) a horror film. I also couldn’t see how Green could overcome his stereotype for such acting. However, in Bethany, Green overcomes thoroughly. Being so serious, and such a different character, physically as much as in behavior, I actually forgot about the snake. In Bethany, Green stars as Dr. Brown, the witty, cynical skrink, upholding the hippocratic oath to the point of making house calls in modern times. Sporting a classic newsboy cap and a goatee beard, Green is as far from the serpent-handling Barry in Road Trip as an actor can be. Humor to remember is delivered again, by Green, in witty comments undercut only by ominous moments in a horror film. Yes! I hit the reverse button more than once on the remote to hear his comedic quips, now committed to memory as added favorites.
Last here, but far from least, is Anna Harr, (Stasis, Restoration) as the young Claire, adding a balanced contrast to Claire’s hardened, stern adult personality. In Harr’s brief scenes, her smile and innocence is the relief needed to remind us that Claire, beneath her damaged life, is very much from humanness and childhood common to us all. Harr gives us the perfect portrait of a happy child, doomed by those who should care for her, to a life of trauma and dysfunction. Without Harr’s performance, so efficiently delivered, Bethany would lack the connection we need.
Are there things I would do differently? Yes, a few, but they are minimal and more about personal preferences than anything certainly needed, not diminishing the film overall. (Yes! I must find something.) First, in a scene where blood sprays from a person’s neck, I would have used practical effects blood, rather than CGI. It was obviously fake, distracting from the scene’s potential. Although anything could happen in hallucinations, there’s nothing like good old-fashioned, dripping, splattering blood, as messy as it gets. Second, I would not have shown a certain object (I will leave unnamed to avoid a spoiler) moving on its own–suggesting so early in the movie that there is, in fact, a ghost in the house. More effective, perhaps, would be to prolong the mystery, preserving the viewer’s uncertainty, bleeding the possibilities. While many events are subjective, in Claire’s mind only, other’s may or may not be, depending on what is revealed objectively…and strategically. Finally, when a certain person is accidentally murdered, I would have him react with a bit more shock, as audiences would expect…precisely because they would expect it from themselves. However, on the other hand, perhaps such resilience reveals more ominous traits about the killer, at just the right moment. Ah, what possibilities there are with enough thought! You be the judge.
Reading other reviews of Bethany gives me reasons to defend the movie against other criticisms, as the true patriot of horror I am. One reviewer on metacritic.com said that there are too many scenes trying to scare us with something (or someone) jumping out unexpectedly, punctuated by the ever-clichéd loud sound. I don’t agree. Although some horror movies do overuse this, Bethany does not…if it even uses it at all. Here, unexpected things scare us, because they are truly scary, not just because they are unexpected. More often, such surprises are part of Claire’s hallucinations, as random and impulsive as she experiences them, being more realistic than contrived. Another reviewer said that the movie “takes advantage of abuse” (what an irony of words), exploiting it as horror entertainment. I disagree again. Bethany focuses on abuse, but it doesn’t use it in ways that exploit the reality of human experience. Abuse, sadly, is horror, and quite possibly, the worst of what is real-world and common. If anything, the movie draws attention to abuse, as a message for prevention, serving further commendable, uncommon purpose in horror. Yet another reviewer said that Claire was so unlikeable that it is difficult to care about her as a character, difficult to care about what happens to her, and, thus, difficult to care about the movie. Can the folly of human apathy be more obvious with this criticism? I doubt it. Claire is clearly a bitter woman, dysfunctional, moody, and yes, sometimes even obnoxious, exactly because of her history of abuse. With empathy from the typical viewer, reasons to care about Claire are abundant, even if she is not so “likeable.” Sure! It would be great if all characters were normal, emotionally healthy, and easy to like, making us care more about them…easily. Many movies throw reality under the bus, so to speak, delivering, instead, what is comfortable…and maybe what is best for marketing and profit. However, I can’t criticize Bethany, because it portrays abuse and it’s victims with more realism. Viewers who have trouble liking Claire, with all of her troubles, should, perhaps, find flaw in themselves.
Above all, despite suggestions for improvement and criticisms elsewhere, Bethany excels at something that most horror movies fail at miserably—unpredictability. Unpredictable events in Bethany were numerous and often, rather than just occasional. Every hallucination and/or haunting scene, as was the aforementioned murder scene, came out of nowhere. The unexpected ending made the movie all the better, perhaps, at its most important moment! Further, director James Cullen Bressack makes excellent use of dramatic lighting and shadows, with camera angles that control and focus the audience. Scenes of Claire bathed in low, cold light, contrasting with near silhouettes in warm shadows, create ominous portraits of horror, with chiseled 3D effects. In such scenes, Bressack’s directing is powerful and effective, adding trademark texture, depth, and style. With this, the visual experience becomes tactile in the mind. Collected screenshots form portfolios of macabre art, captivating audiences in pensive, vulnerable moments. Perfect!
Aside from the CGI blood scene mentioned earlier, special effects are creepy and realistic, even when they are CGI. The scene with strings (or something) pulling from Claire’s face and, later, Claire’s soggy face, drooping and sagging, as she tries to push it back in place, are high points of organic horror. Yes! I actually cringed as I watched the strings in the face—something I rarely do! As one who is terrified by body horror, I was admittedly fated for the horror Bethany delivers, almost biased in praising the movie…almost!
“You’re not just some stinky zombie. You’re my stinky zombie.” ~ Aaron
Are there questions that remain? As with all reviews written properly, yes! First, “Who the hell is Bethany? The main character’s name is Claire,” you say. (See the movie; telling you that would spoil too much.) Will Claire ever escape her memories of abuse, forever chasing herself in nightmares…and the real world? Has Bethany created new fears of piano playing and a new phobia for us all? (You’ll see what I mean. Ouch!) Will Aaron become a dysfunctional, haunted man by association, obnoxious and paranoid like his better (or worse) half? Is, perhaps, Bethany 2 a sequel in the works, revealing further secrets of the “real American horror”? Only time, nightmares, delusions, and the decisions of James Cullen Bressack will tell! With the ending, Bethany is certainly a story that continues.
Hopefully, real victims of abuse, like Claire, can fight their fate–becoming a monster themselves, damned to Hell and hauntings on Earth, sadly propagating their kind. A tortured offspring is, indeed, the possible (or alternate) horror for us all. With Bethany, James Cullen Bressak brings horror to everyone, vicariously, if not by reminding us, as vividly, of our own nightmares and possibilities. Yes! Even you could have been a monster (if you are not already) creating more monsters yourself. With enough thought, the possibilities for horror are endless…and truly haunting, beyond the movie.
“God doesn’t give us what we desire. God gives us what we need.” ~ Claire
Bethany (cowritten by James Cullen Bressack and Zack Ward) is, indeed, a horror story as “American as apple pie,” but deliciously terrifying to the core. In the end, as with all good horrors, you’re left wanting more. Remaining will be nightmares haunting pensive moments of “what if” and “maybe still” possibilities. Perhaps, there is a Bethany somewhere in us all, hidden, poised for the greatest jump scare of our lives. Perhaps, of all horrors, humanness and honesty are the greatest.