By JENN ADAMS
Starring Andrea Londo, Shawn Ashmore, and Jane Badler
Directed by Adam Stilwell
Writen by Kent Harper
The FREE FALL begins with a horrific tragedy. Sara (Andrea Londo) is a young woman on her way to her parents’ vow renewal celebration, but upon arriving at her ominously empty childhood home, she finds a grisly scene of devastation and carnage. After a failed suicide attempt, Sara awakens with no memory, with only the wounds on her wrists to ground her in what’s happened. She’s nursed back to health by her devoted husband, Nick (Shawn Ashmore) who tries to shield her from the outside world. In his solo directing debut, Adam Stilwell crafts a lush and mysterious psychological horror film that draws the audience in with its stylish atmosphere before delivering a knockout punch in the final act.
The vaguely titled film at first defies categorization, keeping most of its secrets well-hidden. Following a character with no memory, we piece the story together as Sara attempts to reconstruct the details of her life. What at first appears to be a haunted house tale shifts and meanders as Nick’s protective nature becomes uncomfortably overbearing. Isolated and alone, Sara’s sleep is haunted by vague shadows and visions of the night she almost died. Her attempts to remember her past are headed off by Nick ostensibly to shield her from the tragedy until she is on more stable footing. He’s aided by a cold and callous housekeeper, Rose (Jane Badler), who doesn’t seem to like Sara much and keeps her from accessing the third floor where truths about her past may lie. Confusing her already fragile mental state, Sara keeps having visions of her estranged sister (Elizabeth Cappuccino) accompanied by a mysterious man (Michael Berry Jr.) who repeatedly offers her his help.
The film’s look is intoxicating as Sara recovers in lush yet understated opulence. From the outside, the house Sara inherited from her parents and now lives in seems like a normal, if slightly larger suburban home. But the inside becomes a character in its own right filled with dark wood paneling, wrought iron embellishments, and billowing curtains that perfectly compliment Kent Harper’s mysteriously unfolding script. The story is relatively simple, but it’s easy to get lost in the luxurious set design, leaving us unprepared for the bloody climax to come. Barcie Waite’s costumes are both exquisite and symbolic – a fantastic example of visual storytelling and the perfect marriage of medium and design. Sara dresses in long, flowing nightgowns and seemingly lives an ideal existence with her writer husband. The gift of a blood red gown Nick intends her to wear to a dinner party celebrating her recovery foreshadows the debauchery into which the night will eventually descend.
Shawn Ashmore is magnetic as her devoted husband who spends his days guarding the doors of Sara’s life. His steely blue eyes and cold handsomeness flag him as a character we’re never quite sure we should trust. Rather than encourage Sara to engage with her past and recapture her memories, Nick gaslights her and pushes her into actions she feels uncomfortable with. When he suggests they throw a dinner party, his attempt to show off for their friends, none of whom Sara remembers, reveals a darker side to his personality and sinister intentions for his wife.
Londo is wonderful as the innocent lamb, Sara who views her surroundings with a sleepy eyed innocence that perfectly contrasts Nick’s smoldering and slightly sinister concerns. The two never quite seem like a true couple, but that’s perhaps intentional: another wrinkle in the unfolding mystery rather than faulty chemistry. Rose, the sinister housekeeper strikes the perfect note of disdainful professionalism. She is far more interested in pleasing Nick than caring for Sara and the two have a combative relationship from the start.
As Sara’s memories slowly return, she begins to question whether the world she’s living in is a safe haven from unknown dangers, or a terrifying nightmare keeping her trapped in isolated affluence. When she does finally rejoin the world, it’s at a lavish dinner party filled with the couple’s beguiling friends. What seems like a pleasant, if slightly odd evening quickly escalates to a delirious bacchanal leading to a sinister ritualized dance and blood filled confusion. The appearance of a devilish man in a pig mask further complicates the evening’s revelries and leaves Sara running for her life.
When Sara does finally make it to the attic where Nick’s secrets are kept, the mystery falls into place. But the journey to that reveal is one of sinfully delicious elegance and menace lurking within luxury. The story takes an abrupt turn, pulling us out of the highly crafted world and into another one altogether. To say more would be to spoil a genuinely surprising twist that carries its own unique implications and a conclusion that is both heartbreaking and familiar. The final reveal is a shocker that somehow feels inevitable and will likely prove rewarding on rewatch. Though The FREE FALL keeps most of its secrets close to the vest, it’s a haunting and relentless journey through a beautiful nightmare that you’ll want to return to.
THE FREE FALL screened as part of Salem Horror Fest 2021.