He Never Left

He Never Left (2023)

He Never Left had its international première on Friday 27th Oct at the Halloween FrightFest

As text reveals at the beginning of He Never Left, a masked menace known as the “Pale Face” killer terrorised Larsen City (‘played’ by Fairview, Utah) for over a decade, before suddenly all the murders and disappearances stopped dead in 1997, even if they left a scar on the community’s psyche that has lasted to the present day. This suggests from the outset that James Morris’ film will be concerned with generational legacy and the return of the repressed, and that it will take the form of a slasher.

All this is confirmed in the opening scene, as Charlotte (Hailey Nebeker), a young woman on the run from an abusive partner, finds herself stalked and slashed in her own motel room by a knife-wielding figure in a mask. Before she is jumped, held down and stabbed in the side by this intruder, Charlotte senses his presence behind her and looks back – and the whole sequence too is casting an eye back over the inherited cinematic history that is sneaking up on its present. For the jack-o’-lantern prominently decorating the room points to John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), while the fugitive woman stopped in a motel harks back even further to Alfred Hitchcock’s ur-slasher Psycho (1960). Morris seems to be letting us know exactly where we are in terms of genre – and yet He Never Left will come to disorient the viewer with its disruptions of chronology and its morally questionable hero, himself a killer.

Like Charlotte, Jesse Gabriel Caspari (Colin Cunningham) – known to his friends as ‘Gabe’ – is on the run, and ends up hiding out in the Skyline Motel, after his ex-girlfriend Carly Phelps (Jessica Staples) drives him there in the boot of her car. Yet far from fleeing a controlling partner, ex-con Gabe is a fugitive of the law, with reports of his recent outrage all over the news, and US Marshalls Tim (played by writer/director Morris) and Mike (Sean Hunter) closing in on his tail. Gabe is also not alone even in his room, being constantly haunted by the ghost of a bloody, accusing Chad (Tommy Morris), the 17-year-old manager of a snow cone van whose untimely death Gabe has, in all his larcenous greed, brought about. Panicky, paranoid and guilt-stricken, Gabe drapes a towel over the bathroom’s looking glass, literally unable to look himself in the mirror, and waits for the call from his estranged brother Andre (Jake Watters) that might just be his only way out of these dire straits. Yet there is also something happening in the room next door. In the middle of the night Gabe hears a commotion, a woman screaming and struggling, a strange whisper – and now he is stuck, terrified, in this “messed-up” place, unable, as Andre tells him over the phone, to “leave that room for anything”, and desperate for some kind of redemption.

He Never Left is concerned with the lasting legacy of family. Gabe may now be a criminal, but he is also the product of a loveless childhood. Carly’s police record for “possession with intent, child endangerment and solicitation” may have led to her seven-year-old son being taken from her, but she too, as a girl, suffered abandonment exactly of the sort that she is now bequeathing to her own child. For like the cicadas which Mike says “hide out underground for, like, 17 years” only to resurface, here trouble and trauma keep coming back – indeed, they have never really left.

Focusing as much on victims as villains, while showing the dovetailing, jigsaw-like links that exist between them, He Never Left allows criminality and psychopathy, both passed down the generations, to check into adjoining rooms. It is also, for all its bleakness, written (by Morris and Michael Ballif) with a deft wit that lets in a little light. For even as the myth of evil endures, finding new forms and methodologies to keep itself hidden and to cover its tracks while still remaining in the public consciousness, there is also the happy-go-lucky, appetitive, good-natured cop Mike reminding his disconsolate partner: “You’ve gotta live.” 

strap: James Morris’ Halloween-set slasher fits mythic, masked evil into a puzzle of childhood trauma, bad parenting and generational legacy

© Anton Bitel