Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Hours Till Daylight (2015)

Director: Jon Garcia                                      Writer: Jon Garcia
Film Score: Skip Vonkuske                           Cinematography: Jon Garcia
Starring: Quinn Allan, Sarah Jannet Parish, Carlos Sepulveda and Vannessa Vasquez

After finishing post production on his intense, human drama The Falls, Portland director Jon Garcia took the star from his first film, Tandem Hearts, back to his home state of Texas to shoot a supernatural thriller. The result is The Hours Till Daylight, a film about a new kind of onscreen horror, a “familiar spirit”--probably a corruption of the phrase familial spirit--that haunts a particular family down through the generations. Quinn Allan, a veteran of independent Portland filmmaking, stars in the production, and along with a group of talented local actors Garcia has produced an effective horror film that manages to find new territory to mine in a seemingly depleted genre. Garcia’s screenplay is refreshing in that it eschews Hollywood tropes and clichés to focus on something unique, a spirit that is not unknown or mysterious, but one that is intimately familiar to the protagonist. Therefore the conflict in the film isn’t about what it is or where it’s coming from, but what to do about it. In this respect it reminds me of my favorite ghost story of all time, The Changeling, with George C. Scott. After the fear and shock of discovery wears off, Scott does everything in his power to assist the ghost in resolving the wrong that had been done to him. Likewise, after generations of fear and denial, Quinn Allen takes matters into his own hands to end his personal haunting once and for all, even at the cost of his own life.

The film begins with a beautifully composed shot of Quinn Allan and his pregnant wife, Sarah Jannet Parish, but the scene quickly cuts to Allan getting into his car and pounding the wheel in anguish. After driving off, Allan flashes back to his childhood, and his terror at knowing that evil spirits came out at night while he was powerless to stop them. Back in the present, his mother calls and chides him for leaving Parish at home alone, and tells him not to go back to his childhood house. But Allan has lived too much of his life in fear and is resolved to do something to end it. Other flashbacks show the young boy playing with his sister, Jonathan Carter Thomas and Auburn Taylor Thomas, who are excellent as the children. While his mother, Vannessa Vasquez, did what she could to allay the young boy’s fears, his father, Carlos Sepulveda, chose denial as his way of coping with the family secret. A particularly chilling moment comes when Sepulveda tells his son that there’s nothing to be afraid of, then adds that if he ignores it, it will ignore him. Ultimately, however, his denial doesn’t work. Arguments between Vasquez and Sepulveda appear to be about other things, but the children know the tension is really caused by the spirit in their lives. The children suffer real, physical abuse at the hands of the spirit, abuse that ends in tragedy.

In the current timeline there is a secondary flashback to just prior to the car trip. Sarah Jannet Parish suffers from Quinn Allan’s inability to sleep during the night. He keeps the lights on and Parish begins to lose patience with him. But when he finally relents and leaves her alone in the bedroom to sleep, the spirit attacks her. It’s a heart-pounding sequence and explains his desperate determination to do something about it. The audience eventually learns that Allan is on his way to seek help from Dan Braverman, a drug lord who also happens to be an old curandero, holed up in his nondescript, apartment-like bedroom. But as powerful as he is, there’s a feeling that the world has passed Braverman by, and that in helping Allan he is also reclaiming a part of his own forgotten past. The most impressive aspect of the film is the acting involved by all the principals. Quinn Allan has always been a solid actor but here he seems to be coming into his own, less interested in the camera than in fully inhabiting his character. Garcia’s lines are well written, to be sure, but it still takes an actor to transform them into something convincing. Allan has achieved that here, and his work in the climactic battle is his best on film so far. Vannessa Vasquez and Carlos Sepulveda also feel like inspired casting as the parents. The camera loves Vasquez’s face in the subjective pov shots, daring the audience not to want her as their own mother, while former Major League baseball player Carlos Sepulveda is the perfect model of the stern, macho male, whose love for his family is almost completely subsumed in his concern for their safety.

The supporting cast is equally well chosen. Jonathan and Auburn Thomas as the children are about as good as it gets. They don’t play cute with the camera but instead add yet another layer of believability to the story. And while Sarah Jannet Parish doesn’t get a lot of screen time, she works incredibly well with Allan in their one scene together. One of the benefits of independent filmmaking is that a director can allow his screenplay to unfold at his own pace. Garcia spends a lot of time in flashback, perhaps too much. At one point there is a lengthy section that might have been better served by cutting back to Allan in the car once or twice. But looked at another way, the multi-generational story can be seen not as a flashback at all, but a separate episode that is less about providing backstory than it is its own special horror involving the children. The flashback sequences also make use of the subjective point of view, and this can be problematic as well because of how artificial it feels for the viewer. There’s some obvious irony in that because the intent is that it’s supposed to put the viewer in the character’s place, but film grammar doesn’t work that way and never really has. Fortunately, Garcia mixes those subjective point of view shots with plenty of objective shots of the children, and is able to avoid having it become a distraction.

One of Garcia’s leaps forward from his previous films is in the use of music on the soundtrack. Instead of soundtracks heavily laden with pop tunes and pre-recorded music, there’s a much greater sense of a thoroughly composed soundtrack, highlighted by the brilliant work of cellist Skip VonKuske in bringing an entirely new musical pallet to the film. And it’s also clear the director understands the use of sound effects necessary to heighten tension in horror films. Assisting Garcia on the sound design is Hollywood veteran John Neff who has had a lengthy association with David Lynch and has done a masterful job of weaving all the sound elements together. But what really stands out in the film is the use of special effects. Rather than beating the viewer over the head with them, the effects in the beginning are subtle and allowed to increase in intensity as the film progresses. The visual effects in the climax seem particularly fresh, frightening without going overboard, and enhancing the strong verisimilitude of the entire production. The Hours Till Daylight is another powerful example of John Garcia’s seemingly unlimited creative energy, as well as a haunting supernatural thriller that is as satisfying as it is scary.

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