There’s a quote from James Cameron about film-making that’s doing the rounds on social media lately: “Pick up a camera. Shoot something. No matter how small, no matter how cheesy, no matter whether your friends and your sister star in it… Now you’re a director. After that you’re just negotiating your budget and your fee” – It’s a mission statement of intent that has been borne out a lot recently, in films as varied as Steven Soderbergh‘s Unsane, or last year’s Host, both films that show the possibilities of creativity within very limiting parameters. Powell Robinson and Patrick R Young‘s Threshold takes this idea to the extreme; shot exclusively on just two camera phone over the course of twelve days, with a crew of just three people.
Leo (Joey Millin) visits his sister Virginia (Madison West) only to discover her in a terrible state – she later confides in him that she has been indoctrinated into a cult and somehow possessed by a complete stranger. Initially sceptical, Leo agrees to take her on a road trip to find the man she’s bonded to and lift the curse. However, as more and more eerie things happen, he begins to doubt his rational beliefs and has to come to terms with the fact that Virginia might not be that crazy after all.
An engaging road movie that uses horror tropes to explore the strained relationship at its core, both Millin and West are believable as the estranged brother and sister, and deliver strong performances. The largely improvised script is engaging and full of subtle background details, and both actors have a natural, easy chemistry that makes both of their characters relatable. Something a lot of horror directors miss is that you have to care about the characters before you do horrible things to them, and both the directors and the actors understand this completely, making their respective characters instantly likeable. The issue is that when the scares do come, they just aren’t that scary.
There are a handful of jump scares that are pretty effective, but the slow burning sense of oppression that the film aims for feels constantly just out of reach. By the time the end rolls around, Leo is convinced that his sister is sane – but there’s not enough proof in the film itself to convince the audience of this, and that’s a problem. The final climactic scene is potentially divisive, although for me I think it just about works. It depends very much on how invested you are in the characters and their situation. By this point, the horror plot has all but disappeared in favour of the siblings relationship, and the script doesn’t provide enough information for the ending to not to feel jarring. That being said the performances are so good throughout, and the two leads make a compelling pair, that I went along with the ending in all its macabre weirdness. The final line is just the right side of self-parody and is a much welcome break in tension, while also suggesting the curse is all but lifted.
Considering the whole film was shot on two iPhones, it actually looks pretty great – a benefit of being a road movie is that the directors have their pick of beautiful locations. It reminded me of Gareth Edwards‘ Monsters, a film of the road that features gigantic monsters. Like Monsters, Threshold delivers the on the road aspect of the film, but unfortunately falls down a little on the scares.
However, the short runtime and breezy pace means that Threshold never outstays its welcome. The dynamic and interplay between the two characters is refreshing and in truth, a lot more interesting than the horror elements. In any case, making a film this coherent using the limited resources at their disposal is an incredible achievement in and of itself. The fact that the resulting film is so interesting and compelling just makes this even more impressive.