Stalker had its world première at FrightFest 2022
Stalker lets you know where it is going from the outset. That title – assuming that this is not a British remake of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 classic – seems something of a giveaway. Suspicions are further confirmed by text appearing right at the start which lays out the large proportion of women – and the smaller but still significant proportion of men – who will be stalked in their lifetime. And the first scenes show a woman in heels, viewed from behind and from a low angle that, like a leering voyeur, very much focuses on her legs, reducing her to her parts. Unnoticed by this woman, a man, his face hidden under a cap, does indeed follow her from out of the rain into an empty old neon-lit hotel – and forces his way into the creaky old lift with her. Part way up, the lift stalls and now Rose Hepburn (Sophie Skelton) and Daniel Reed (Stuart Brennan) are going to be spending the next few hours in uncomfortably close proximity to one another. What started as a classic stalk – and possibly slash – scenario suddenly changes gears, as Steve Johnson’s film, written by Chris Watt, becomes the kind of claustrophobic ‘elevated’ horror seen in the telemovie The Elevator (1974), and films like Abwärts (1984), Blackout (2007), Devil (2010), Elevator (2011), Freefall (2014), The End? (2017) and Into The Dark: Down (2019). Indeed there will be further sudden gear changes, and violent lurchings up and down, in the taut, twisty pas de deux to follow.
For within the lift’s narrow confines, Stalker becomes a tense two-hander, as hunter and prey discover just how much they have in common. Rose is an actor – she expressly prefers this term to actress – playing the blind, vulnerable yet strong female lead in a horror production, a part she got only when the better-known star Alice vanished, while Daniel shoots on-set footage for the behind-the-scenes promotional material, having started out as a grip and invisibly worked his way up over nine years, his ambitions to be a cinematographer or director still a distant pipe dream. They are both overlooked and exploited in the business, one for his class, the other for her gender. “I’m a B list movie actor, and you shoot B roll,” as Rose puts it, “we’re team second place.” Yet Daniel is also a creep, who was watching Alice right up until her mysterious disappearance, and has since transferred his unwelcome, if unnoticed attentions to Alice’s replacement in the film. As the two try to work out how to get out of their metal death trap, and also get to know each other better, we see Daniel constantly struggling to resist his urges and to restrict the expression of his errant desires to a mere gaze.
“I know what you’re thinking. It’s just a horror movie, right?”, says Rose, chattering away about the film in which she is currently starring, “But, I mean there are horror movies and horror movies. Women don’t tend to get well-represented in that genre.” Indeed, even as her male director (Bret Hart) has been pressuring her to go topless, she would prefer to be “reshaping conventions.” Here the film-within-a-film serves as a metacommentary on Rose’s current predicament, and on the sexual politics of Stalker itself – and soon, to pass the time, Rose and Daniel are practising actual lines from the film, with her playing the final girl and him the killer. “There’s only two characters,’ she points out helpfully, “unless you want to switch” – and indeed, genre-savvy viewers will be expecting that, as sure as what goes up must come down, the tables must eventually turn, even if we are left to grope about in the dark trying to see how exactly this can happen.
Meanwhile cinematographer Simon Stolland shows the lift’s interior from every conceivable angle, and in a number of colour-coded lights, ensuring that this prime location is always visually interesting and even, in the last act, transforming it into a shifting space of hallucination and harrowing delusion. Holding everything together is Skelton, who in a real tour de force, plays a character who is herself an actor, and whose ability to deliver extremely convincing performances has long gone unnoticed. Skelton proves already to be the star that Rose longs to be, even as both slyly reshape horror conventions, while (out)playing the stalker.
strap: Steve Johnson’s taut, twisty ‘elevated’ horror traps an ambitious actor and a predatory voyeur in a lift together
© Anton Bitel