★★★★ out of ★★★★★
An evil entity is loosed, bringing death and terror to a graduate student, her ex-boyfriend, and practically everyone they know in this intimate independent horror outing.
Directed by Andrew Merrill
Writer/director/editor Andrew Merrill’s Rot is a dark, unsettling look at the downward spiral of a graduate student under a great deal of pressure whose life gets far worse after she and her boyfriend break up. Both of their lives change rapidly when he becomes infected by something of a highly diabolical nature. Merrill puts a current spin on some familiar fright film angles, adding some commentary on sexual politics, too.
Madison (Kris Alexandrea) has more than her share of stress and things to consider, thanks to being a grad school teaching assistant to a hard-nosed professor and because of an upcoming interview that could possibly mean a huge life change for her. Her underachieving boyfriend Jesse (Johnny Kostrey) is content with his assisted living orderly gig and not finishing college, believing that the relationship between Madison and him is all the two of them really need in life. On the evening that he plans to surprise Madison with a marriage proposal, she instead ends their relationship. Soon thereafter, Jesse has a supernatural virus forced on him by one of his charges at work, leading him to angrily confront Madison about their breakup while he goes on a murderous rampage.
Rot has the exciting element of keeping viewers feeling disoriented and uneasy. Even as more information and new plot points are unveiled, what should be comfortable spaces — a university campus and the familiar homes of friends and relatives, for example — are increasingly fraught with tension. The unexpected could be lurking around any corner.
Merrill takes the fear-fare trope of an entity or virus that changes those we know and love into unrecognizable forces of evil —- used in films as diverse as David Cronenberg’s Shivers (1975) and Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool (2008) —- and adds a supernatural angle to the mix. The victims have other things in mind for those who have yet to turn than eating them, so potential viewers need not worry about Rot being yet another entry in the tired zombie genre. I won’t go into specifics about what happens, but suffice it to say that I was reminded of a classic science fiction/horror outing updated for the madness of today’s world.
The opening scene, between two elderly ladies in an assisted living space, sets the pace for Rot, kicking things off with a mysterious vibe. Merrill ratchets up both the drama between the characters and the tension and horror superbly throughout the film, building up to a jaw-dropping climax that is wholly unpredictable and quite uncomfortable.
Jesse and Madison have grown apart without the former realizing it, as evidenced, for example, by his jealousy toward Madison’s professor. Although initially he seems to at least attempt to keep his insecurities and possessiveness in check, once he is exposed to the sinister contagion, his filter is shattered and he becomes frighteningly feral and a real danger to Madison, not to mention others.
Alexandrea is outstanding as a strong young woman trying to live her best life and prepare for her future. Kostrey also gives a fine turn, showing a wide range as his character slowly succumbs to dark forces. The supporting cast is solid, as well, especially Johnny Uhorchuk as Jesse’s confused but helpful roommate Aaron, Sara Young Chandler as Jesse’s new romantic interest Nora, and McKale Jude Bingham as Madison’s younger, equally independent sister Chrissy.
Merrill came to Rot with experience writing, directing, and editing short films, and he has several cinematography and other filmmaking credits, too. His feature film debut is a fine slice of modern horror cinema. Rot focuses on its characters as much as the shocks and tension on display, much like other recent intimate horror films such as Perry Blackshear’s They Look Like People (2015) and The Siren (AKA The Rusalka; 2019), and David Marmor’s 1BR (2019). Viewers should find Rot to be a powerful new independent horror offering, and Merrill to be a captivating new voice in the genre.
Rot screened at Another Hole in the Head Film Fest, which runs December 1st –15th at New People Cinema in San Francisco.