Director : John D. Hancock
Screenplay : Dorothy Tristan
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 2003
Stars : Alex McArthur (Tom Kempton), Laura Esterman (Vanessa Boulette), Sage Allen (Ann Boulette), Rebecca Harrell (Hilary Kempton), Fred Meyers (Sandor Hansen), Maria Cina (Clara Hansen), Jeff Puckett (Cliff Modjeska), Daniel Riordan (Jack Starr), J.E. Freeman (Philip Boulette)
John D. Hancock’s low-budget Suspended Animation is a wild, weird, sometimes fascinating, but more often head-scratching horror-thriller that’s been running the festival circuit for the past two years and has finally scored a theatrical release just in time for Halloween. Scripted by his wife, Dorothy Tristan, who based it on her own unpublished novel, Suspended Animation is the kind of movie that starts out in one direction, gets you settled into a rhythm, and then starts branching off into unexpected territory again and again; it’s main goal is to keep you guessing where it’s headed next. On the one hand, this makes for an intriguing viewing experience because it keeps you on your toes, but unfortunately, it also makes the final product feel mangled and disjointed, as if Tristan threw a handful of genre scenarios into a blender and dumped out the results.
Alex McArthur (whose voice at times is a dead ringer for Alec Baldwin’s) stars as Tom Kempton, an animator who takes off for a weekend of snow mobiling in northern Michigan with a couple of buddies when the Hollywood pressure starts to get to him. Unfortunately, he gets off-course in the woods and soon finds himself being held hostage by the cannibalistic Boulette sisters: matronly and corpulent Ann (Sage Allen) and lithe and creepy Vanessa (Laura Esterman). This opening sequence has been justifiably compared to the scenario in Stephen King’s Misery (famous person held hostage in the middle of nowhere by a psychotic woman), but it really works because Hancock established a funky-creepy tone that would make David Lynch proud.
It won’t give too much away to say that Tom manages to escape and at least one of the sisters may live to stalk him another day. Although back in his cozy Hollywood bubble, Tom can’t seem to shake the traumatic incident, and he feels driven to incorporate it into his work. To this end, he seeks out Clara Hansen (Maria Cina), a struggling young actress is also Vanessa’s daughter (she was given up for adoption as a baby and has no idea that her birth mother is a cannibalistic psycho). This then sets in motion an entirely different plot, as Tom becomes involved with Clara and her 15-year-old son, Sandor (Fred Meyers, a far cry from his role on the Disney Channel’s Even Stevens), a surly, scowling, pimply gothic type who might just be a serial killer.
And the story continues on from there, basically turning Tom into an amateur sleuth who’s determined to try to understand what happened to him by finding out as much as he can about the Boulette family tree (this also includes a meeting with Ann and Vanessa’s imprisoned brother). It doesn’t take a genius to realize that the Boulette family has emerged from a seriously warped genetic pool, and Clara seems to be the only one who managed to escape and become an outwardly normal person (although her eyes, one brown, one blue, suggest there might be a hidden duality). The freakishness of this clan is the movie’s strongest asset, as it registers well with modern American horror’s obsession with dismantling the myth of the picture-perfect nuclear family.
Shot on high-definition video, Suspended Animation has polish and a slick look for an ambitious film shot on a tight $2 million budget (the budgetary restrictions only really show during a snowmobile chase that involves a CGI avalanche that is as two-dimensional as Tom’s animation). Hancock has a good feel for the horror genre, and if the movie ever fails visually, it is because it often looks too bright and cheery. This works at times to underscore the weird Lynchian dynamics (think the absurdly saturated colors at the beginning of Blue Velvet), but some moodier tones would have helped, as well.
To horror aficionados, Hancock is probably best known for his directorial debut, the 1971 cult gem Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, although he is also well-regarded in the mainstream for his baseball tearjerker Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) starring a young Robert De Niro and Michael Moriarty, the Nick Nolte prison drama Weeds (1987), and the family-friendly Prancer (1989). Many have seen Suspended Animation as Hancock’s return to his true form, as it is the first straight-out horror movie he’s made since Jessica. Granted, it has all the ingredients of a new cult classic, particularly its incessant, often inexplicable weirdness, but it would be surprising if many remember it after a few years.
Copyright © 2003 James Kendrick