In horror, as in Freudian psychoanalysis, it is usually a young child who witnesses – and misunderstands – a primal scene (typically, sex between parents), engendering the perversion of that child’s psychosexual development. The Free Fall certainly opens with a primal scene, as Sara Wright (Andrea Londo) enters the upstairs bedroom of her parents, only to see her mother repeatedly stabbing her (already dead) father on the bed (in a perverse parody of penetrative sex) before cutting her own throat – but Sara, far from being prepubescent, is an adult woman, a ‘good girl’ and pious daughter who has come to celebrate her parents’ wedding anniversary and renewal of vows in the family home even as her rather less devoted sister Julie (Elizabeth Cappuccino) stays away. Sara’s visit coincides with an unspeakable act of domestic horror, leading her, via a woozy chain of events whose links are unclear, to cut her own wrists in the bath. Now, months later, Sara wakes up, still in the house that has now become her only legacy from her late parents. Lying in the same bed where her father had earlier lain in a pool of blood, Sara recuperates from her injuries and struggles with a severe case of amnesia, as she tries to piece back together what happened that night, what possessed her to attempt suicide, and which direction in life she wishes to take (if she even has any choice).
In other words,The Free Fall is a film of loss and recovery, placing us, via narrative ellipses, hallucinatory perspectives, fragmented flashbacks and alarming nightmares, in the same state of post-traumatic delirium as its protagonist, and challenging us, along with her, to work out what is hard reality, and what mere deluded fantasy. Helping, or perhaps hindering, this therapeutic process is Sara’s solicitous husband Nick (Shawn Ashmore), whose very existence Sara cannot remember and has to take on trust, and her hired caretaker Rose (Jane Badler), who oozes creepiness and has an obscure attachment to Nick. Weak, confused and fragile, Sara quickly senses that “everything is off”, and begins to question whether these two de facto strangers in her parents’ house really have her best interests at heart, or are gaslighting and manipulating her for some unknown agenda. We wonder the same, not least because the author Nick, obsessively typing away at his latest work when he is not tending to Sara, rather obviously evokes the archetypal bad dad Jack Torrance from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). Meanwhile, a mysterious man named Tom (Michael Berry Jr.) keeps circling the perimeter of the premises and beckoning to Sara.
It is a sinister, insidious set-up that will keep viewers guessing whether Sara is awake or in a coma, alive or dead, even as the house’s anxiety-fraught rooms, corridors and stairways give expression to the amnesiac heroine’s otherwise locked-in psychological interiority. This is a place that reechoes with diabolical things that happened in the childlike Sara’s actual childhood, and from whose damaging grip Sara has never quite been able to escape. Here the head of the house has always been a controlling, abusive patriarch. Which is to say that although The Free Fall does in the end settle on an ingenious explanation for Sara’s housebound experiences, reverse-engineering a familiar genre scenario from the inside out, this family home is nonetheless built on mixed foundations, and remains open and accommodating to more than one interpretation, both supernatural and psychological.
Adam Stilwell has previously co-helmed The Triangle (2016) with four other filmmakers, but this is his feature debut as solo director, and in it he crafts a relentless mood of claustrophobic paranoia and domestic unease, while accumulating ambiguity. Scripted by Kent Harper, who last wrote Surveillance (2008) with Jennifer Lynch, it is a twisty, disorienting story which captures its protagonist precisely in free fall from a trauma whose roots go way further back than the film’s initial primal scene – all in a haunted house that has always, in one way or another, been bedevilled by the sort of age-old family dysfunction and perversion which, even if only half-remembered, still leave their scar.
strap: Adam Stilwell’s psychological/supernatural thriller presents a family home bedevilled by primal scenes and embedded traumas
© Anton Bitel