By SHAWN MACOMBER
Starring Matthew Tompkins, Michael Ironside and Arnold Vosloo
Written and directed by Jon Keeyes
“Sanity,” the late cultural critic Susan Sontag once said, “is a cozy lie.” In many contexts, this can be a boon: Whether we’re talking medicine, science or the arts, those great leaps forward often require a confidence and commitment to audacity that—particularly in the moment—truly can border on lunacy. And then there is the darker side to the “lie”—the shadows that are waiting to envelop us when we overestimate our sanity.
THE HARROWING (now available on VOD), as the title not-so-subtly suggests, explores the latter.
After an apparently poorly timed coffee run during an undercover vice sting, Detective Ryan Calhoun (Matthew Tompkins) returns to find a couple of eviscerated bodies and one of his underlings chewing on the guts of his partner as if they’re lo mein from a Chinese takeout container. None of this looks good to the higher-ups—Calhoun was, after all, forced to shoot the one initially surviving witness, a fellow officer—and Lt. Logan (the legendary Michael Ironside) puts him on administrative leave before you can say cannibal cop.
But can Calhoun let it go? No, he cannot.
Long story short—in truth, the setup here feels like it could’ve been compressed a bit—some Internet sleuthing leads Calhoun to believe his partner’s death may have been tied to a cluster of murders spurred on by psychotic delusions of demons—which, in turn, are somehow tied to a local psychiatric hospital. Will Lt. Logan, against his own professed better judgment, allow Calhoun to take a deep-cover tour of said psychiatric hospital as a patient? Yes. Yes, he will.
What ensues has the feel of a mashup inspired by THE KINGDOM, SHUTTER ISLAND and JACOB’S LADDER: The head of the hospital (MUMMY/DARKMAN sequels vet Arnold Vosloo) is vaguely sinister and creepy. The patients are all too happy to share foreboding, wait-how-do-they-know-that tidbits. Staffers have itchy trigger fingers when it comes to sedative guns. And those demons? Well, they’re a whole lot more believable on the inside than Calhoun could have ever imagined. Alas, exiting the institution proves considerably more difficult than entering, and Calhoun—isolated and restrained—will have to battle demons both literal and figurative if he wants to not only survive, but uncover the truth about the degree to which his life and role in the horrific happenings around him have been a “cozy lie.”
That’s a lot of world-building to do on what is clearly an indie budget—the aesthetic here carries a ’90s cable-horror vibe—but writer/director Jon Keeyes (AMERICAN NIGHTMARE, DOOM ROOM) and co. do an admirable job of keeping the viewer’s head in what is, despite its moments of bombast and creature horror, a nuanced story of the tenuous nature of human perception and the ways the reverberations of trauma can alter it. Though seasoned fans of psychological horror may surmise how Calhoun’s tale ultimately shakes out, the twists and turns in the path en route are thought-provoking and unpredictable. All in all, THE HARROWING shapes up as a smart, worthwhile addition to this difficult-to-nail sub-subgenre.