Cheat (2023)

Cheat had its world première on Thurs 24th Aug at FrightFest

Cheat – co-written and co-directed by Nick Psinakis and Kevin Ignatius (The Long Dark Trail, 2022) – opens in 1888 with Farmer Miller (Will Bunk) carrying his unconscious daughter Clara (April Clark) to a barn, hanging her upside down inside, and as she wakes, cutting her throat for her to bleed out like an animal. The precise context for this scene of perverse domestic horror will not be made clear until much later – but for now what is important is that Clara, who will become the film’s ghostly antagonist, is also, in her origin story, a victim.

Cut to the present day, and Maeve Johnson (Corin Clay) has driven from her city home to take up a scholarship at the Crary College of Art and Design in Silvercreek, Pennsylvania – an ordinary-seeming sleepy town with one of the highest rates of suicide in America. She is being hosted by psychiatrist Charlie Walker (Mick Thyer), who founded the scholarship to honour the memory of his arts student daughter Abby after she had killed herself a year ago. Maeve considers herself single, even though she has never actually split up with her jailed boyfriend – and Charlie also considers himself unattached, even though tactful sensitivity towards his estranged wife Anna, who has been institutionalised with grief since their daughter’s death, has prevented him from formally divorcing her. So when Maeve and Charlie sleep with each other, they are technically cheating on their respective partners, and awakening Clara – now a local urban myth – to penalise their infidelity,

A conservative brand of prudish moralising has often been part and parcel of the slasher genre, where teen victims are typically sexually active (and implicitly being punished for their promiscuity), while conversely the Final Girl is usually a virgin, untainted by the stain of adult experience and immune to the killer’s penetrative thrustings. In Cheat, as its title implies, it is not just any old sexual activity but specifically adultery that is the punishable crime. Here, even before the revenant Clara, still dressed in her outmoded white clothing, turns up to serve as judge, jury and executioner, concealing her implacable death sentences under the guise of suicide, both Maeve and Charlie will bleed profusely from their genitalia, underlining the venereal nature of their affliction. For as anyone who has woken up from a one-night stand with an unwelcome itch will attest, sleeping around can have consequences, and leave a curse. Indeed Cheat is more curse movie than slasher, with love cheats having about three days of panic and paranoia before Clara, having hovered visibly on the margins, moves in for the kill. So there are traces of Hideo Nakata’s Ring (1998) and especially of David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows (2014) to these characters’ desperate race to stave off what’s coming to them, even as similarly unfaithful friends and acquaintances meet grisly ends around them. 

“Do you ever think she wants something more than just to kill?”, asks Maeve’s bookwormish fellow student and chief expositor Ollie (Brady O’Donnell), in a moment of questioning insight almost as arbitrary as the surreal Evil Dead-style method that he proposes for ending Clara’s vendetta (asked how he knows about it, Ollie tells Maeve bizarrely, “I don’t – it’s just the best interpretation of what I’ve read”). Indeed nothing that the characters say or do here makes a whole bunch of sense, as they merely go through the motions demanded to progress the plot (some of these motions unfolding in an actual movie theatre, as though to emphasise their status as cinematic tropes). Maeve and Charlie have an affair, but there is little credible chemistry between them. When wide-eyed Maeve madly insists that an antiquated woman in white is following her everywhere, her new friend Lydia (Danielle Grotsky) neglects to mention that the same woman has been tailing her for a few days too. Everyone here seems to be in a dazed dream, drifting through a supernatural scenario where anxiety, guilt and secrets are brought to a nightmarish surface. There are weird and wild narrative leaps here, with only the scantiest grounding in reality. It is almost as though the film itself is cheating on its contract with the viewer – and then, when Cheat finally reveals what Clara really wants, it unnecessarily overexplains everything with uneconomic flashbacks to key lines, as though the truth itself is a kind of didactic revenge upon viewers, who are forced to learn its lesson.

“We’re both adults, we made a decision,” Maeve tells Charlie, stating really all that needs to be said about their brief, entirely consensual sexual encounter – but prim, judgmental Clara embodies Victorian values which, though from a very different era, still seem able to prick consciences even in our postmodern age. Perhaps that is the ultimate message of Cheat: that, despite its apparent progress and secularism, contemporary America remains haunted by a historical puritanism that dies hard.

strap: Cheat co-ed: Nick Psinakis & Kevin Ignatius’ curse horror shows modern smalltown America still haunted by a history of puritanism

© Anton Bitel