★★★★ out of ★★★★★
A not-veiled at all analogy to sexual assault, Take Back the Night relects on the horrors of being attacked by a monster before, during, and after the event. This is a make-a-statement horror movie on a miniscule budget that is fighting well above its weight class, thanks to some standout acting performances and emotional resonance.
Directed by Gia Elliot
The title of the film doesn’t even hide the intent of the message of this movie. The term “Take Back the Night” has been used for a long time as a battle cry by anti-sexual assault activists to create community support for victims and prevention of these heinous crimes. As we have discussed many a time before, the horror genre allows filmmakers to explore sensitive subjects by proxy, and in this me-too environment, this film takes on the subject material head-on.
In this case, the rapist is replaced by a foul and indistinct beast that likes to hide in back-alley trash dumpsters, as if back alleys weren’t scary enough already. In many ways, I would assume that a foul and indistinct attacker is the way that many women may recall their assault. It is not too broad a metaphor to draw that conclusion.
Emma Fitzpatrick plays Jane, a Los Angeles-based YouTube influencer and an emerging painter with a significant online following. At the party celebrating her first gallery showing, Jane ends up drinking a little more than she should. She does not get fall-down drunk, but she is wobbly enough that she wants to head home, disappointed that her older sister decided not to come. She assists one of the other party-goers (who has had waaaaay too much to drink) in catching a cab and insists that she will be ok heading back home on her own by foot.
Of course, this sends her down the alley from hell. This is everyone’s concept of a “stay out of there” environment, but Jane is a confident young woman (and a little drunk) so she meanders into a dead end, and a blurry smoke-tendril-and-housefly creation bursts out of one of the trash bins and attacks Jane. Fade to black.
When we next see Jane, she is checking in to a hospital emergency ward, with deep claw marks across her belly, massive bruising all over, and untold other damage. She is in a complete daze, and when being interrogated by the detective (Jennifer Lafleur), still in shock, she stonewalls a bit, and only refers to her attacker as “it.” When Jane’s sister (Angela Gulner) arrives to insist on a lawyer be present, Jane demurs and just wants to go home and not talk about this.
A key concept in this film is how a victim processes an attack. How do they communicate about their trauma with authorities, family, friends, and in Jane’s case, her audience? Both Jane and her sister were raised by a mother who suffered from debilitating psychoses, which muddies her explanation. Most everyone in contact with Jane believes the attacker was a man, but after she insists that it was a monster, she has to confront when accusations of insanity.
Jane decides to crowd-source a solution by going to her YouTube followers for advice. Have you seen a monster like this? What would you do? Do you believe me? It’s catharsis by way of community. Jane’s sister sees this as the WORST thing she should be doing, and begs her to let the cops find the man who did this to her, and not to humiliate herself and her family by being so public about her assault. She even goes so far as to say that Jane is being an attention-craving narcissist.
Her sister has a point. Jane is not easy to bond with as a character, but that is some of the power of the film. She is an imperfect heroine. She demonstrates incredible willpower and independence, but sometimes her decisions lack foresight and draw unwanted attention. As for her outreach attempts, the responses are initially pretty vapid (I love you! I’m so sorry!) or crass (“I’d still hit that!”) or accusatory (“She’s going crazy… just like her mom!”). But eventually, she starts reaching people who have gone through the same thing, with the same monster.
I have a friend who went through a domestic assault situation, and she did not want to go to the police about it but instead rallied her friends around (The attacker was known) to try and resolve the situation. None of us really liked that solution, but she insisted that she did not trust the authorities, and wanted to handle it her way. It was awkward, but it ended up working out. And it is this ambiguity of how to handle the most personal of violations that have threads running throughout this film.
I would be curious to know if this was at all an autobiographical story by either of the writers Emma Fitzpatrick (the star) and Gia Elliot (also the director.) It is not a simple catch-all. The monster is not easily identified, and due to her inebriated state and history of mental illness, Jane is an unreliable victim/witness. Not to mention, she is an uncooperative victim.
The characters feel very lived in. The detective (no name given) is a woman looking for her first big break, as solving this case would cement her reputation in the department. The detective’s rascal girlfriend is an untrustworthy snoop, whose actions prove unhelpful in the events of the film. Jane’s sister is a protective, but much more conservative by-the-books “adult-in-the-room” personality. And all of these characters play well off of each other.
The film is well shot, and it finds some authentically grimy and nasty chucks of LA mixed in with the glamour of the LA hipster scene. Kudos to the location scout, as the locations were all evocative, from the creepiest of alleys to the cool artist loft residence, to the sterility of the hospital, and the isolation of the interrogation room. Elliot did a great job with the color, lighting, and contrast to draw the drama out. Both alley scenes (there is a second involving changing a car tire) were both particularly toe-curling affairs.
The micro-budget becomes evident with the special effects. It helps that the monster is a ropey and shadowy thing. It is thematically appropriate, and it also forgoes the need for a monster in a rubber suit. But, there are aspects of it that look artificial. A telltale for the monster is the presence of flies. But these flies are distractingly digital. I think fewer of them could have been used and the audio could have been the cue that the monster was stinky and covered in flies.
The conclusion for the movie played out like a conventional horror picture, with a thrilling action sequence and a bit of ambiguity. It does allow for Jane to prove that she is not crazy, but it seemed like there may have been a more poignant way to seal the argument. I would have liked a definitive closure to how Jane approached the handling of her situation. Was crowd-sourcing her problem the right move or the wrong move? The bread crumbs lead you to affirm her approach, but in the end, the results are inconclusive.
There was a lot of emotional effort put into this film, and it does come across, even if it doesn’t bring down the proverbial hammer. Then again, the subject material may not be something that is possible to tie up with a tidy bow and to have an authoritative “This is how you do it, sisters!” statement. It is a thoughtful and resonant story even if it ends with ellipses rather than an exclamation mark…
Take Back the Night is not rated, but would certainly be rated R for the violence, language, and subject material. This movie had its World Premiere at the Popcorn Frights Film Festival, and is just starting its festival run. Keep an eye on Gia Elliot, as this first feature bodes well for future work as a new director.