Antidote (2021)

Antidote has its UK première at FrightFest

A couple of minutes into Peter Daskaloff’s Antidote, Sharyn Berkley (Ashlynn Yennie) is rushed into hospital with acute appendicitis, but after being taken in for an emergency operation, she awakens handcuffed to a bed in a different institution, the scar in her belly already healed, and a softly spoken, solicitous man in medical scrubs – who introduces himself as Dr Hellenbach (Louis Mandylor) – insisting that she, along with her fellow patients, submit to a regimen of painful surgeries and “unconventional healing methods”. Which is to say the film certainly cuts to the chase of its central premise, even as we realise we have no idea who Sharyn is, or why the film’s opening shot revealed a man (Scott Alin) alone in his apartment, bloodily suspended from the ceiling by piano wire. As Sharyn – and we with her – try to work out the precise nature and purpose of the facility in which she has become imprisoned for bizarre medical experiments, and to determine how to escape so that she can get back to her husband Costas (Yorgos Karamihos) and young daughter Ashley (Olive Hoffman), in fact her only refuge is past memories, shown as an accumulating series of flashbacks that gradually establish her rather conflicted identity and guilty conscience.

Yennie is no stranger to unorthodox surgeries, having first risen to fame twice over as involuntary patient in Tom Six’s The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (2009) and The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence) (2011) – and certainly Antidote toys with torture porn, as the patients in this shadowy, labyrinthine institution are subjected to horrific and repeated bodily traumas, and then treated with the powerful serum ‘DMS’ that repairs the damage. “Why do you keep healing me?”, Sharyn will ask Hellenbach, “Why don’t you just kill me?” Yet as she finds herself serving as involuntary guinea pig in an unspeakable research programme, Sharyn will also retreat into a past that she has not previously allowed herself to confront or even acknowledge, searching for the inner strength to go on, or at least for hidden answers to her present predicament.

“I see what’s going on here,” Sharyn will say, at a point when she really does not, prompting the sinister psysician to tell her: “I think it’s time we analyse what’s going on inside your head.” Later, once Sharyn really has got it, Hellenbach will congratulate her with the words: “Most people never figure it out.” This is in fact something of a structural problem within Antidote: for despite the doctor’s diagnosis, most people, at least among the audience, will have figured it out long before Sharyn ever does. There are just too many tells here, from the fellow patients who seem “really off”, to the hallucinatory irrationality of events, to the peculiar tenor of Hellenbach’s consultations, to the key character whose very name is a rather obvious punning plot summary. So while Daskaloff is certainly putting a new infernal spin on the themes of Sadean entrapment found in, say, Sucker Punch (2011), The Seasoning House (2012), Raze (2013), Level 16 (2018) and Breeder (2020), and finding a psychological and spiritual route through all these physical torments, many viewers may feel that they are always one or two steps ahead of the characters, and may also find the revelations, when they come, as of little real surprise. The writing is on the wall – and the fact that it is in Latin is yet another giveaway…

strap: Peter Daskaloff’s hospital-set ordeal finds psychological and spiritual routes through a torture porn scenario

© Anton Bitel