“Bethany” (2017): A Vibrant, Chilling Psychological Thriller

Bethany is a 2017 independent horror film featuring masterful cinematography, an engaging narrative, and solid practical effects. It  arrives as a fresh indie psychological horror flick, one that is written and directed by James Cullen Bressack (Pernicious, If Looks Could Kill, Hate Crime) with Zack Ward (Transformers, A Christmas Story, Resident Evil: Apocalypse) as co-writer.  

Claire (Stefanie Estes) and her husband Aaron (Zack Ward) move into Claire’s childhood home after the death of her mother Susan (Shannen Doherty). Claire shortly discovers herself suffering from hallucinations and visits from her imaginary friend Bethany. Additionally, Claire suffers from recollections of her mother’s abusive behavior. While Aaron and Claire struggle in their relationship, friend and psychiatrist Dr. Brown (Tom Green) aids the couple.

Bethany succeeds as an enthralling film. It feels almost like a play. The case remains fairly small. Bethany primarily focuses on Claire and Aaron, with flashbacks of Susan, and superb scenes featuring Dr. Brown. There’s a Rosemary’s Baby vibe that’s perpetuated by the narrative. Primarily, Bethany harkens back to Rosemary’s Baby due to its setting: most of the film transpires inside the house, just like the Roman Polanski classic takes place largely in an apartment.

Masterful cinematography lends a shiny veneer to Bethany. It’s chock full of neat camera angles: unconventional close-ups and warped lens effects create a surreal, nightmarish environment. Lighting is often one of the most challenging aspects of a film, and Bethany boasts lighting as vibrant as Suspiria or The Neon Demon.

What’s utterly refreshing about Bethany is that its horror spawns equally, if not more, from the psychological aspects as the supernatural. In Bethany, Claire’s mother Susan appears the true monster. Her abuse eschews the supernatural. Therefore, it’s truly haunting. Scenes where Susan ridicules Claire as a child are gut-wrenchingly realistic. In  one instance where Claire has a flashback while playing piano,  Bethany delves into Mommy Dearest territory for a particularly haunting scene.

Bethany, therefore, remains relatable. The down-to-earth horror is more devastating and tragic than a gorefest. Moreover, for much of the film there’s an ambiguity as to the supernatural elements. Like in Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, there’s a “ghosts vs. cabin fever” debate that  forces viewers to question what’s real and what Claire imagines. By including numerous flashbacks, Susan is therefore portrayed as Claire’s ghost rather than Bethany.

Acting shines throughout Bethany. Estes wonderfully exhibits Claire’s downward spiral into madness. Ward similarly shows quite a range, especially in nightmare sequences that Claire imagines. It’s Green, however, as Dr. Brown who  arguably steals the show. He  delivers a stellar performance that  is decidedly, and unexpectedly, serious. Yet Green, along with Ward, infuses Bethany with an enjoyable bit of levity. Aaron and Dr. Brown in one scene toss around geeky banter that  includes references to Star Wars, and hilariously there’s a throwback to Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) from Back to the Future.

While effects are mostly excellent, it’s the CGI where Bethany falters. The CG used on Bethany (Anna Harr) is fairly unrealistic. Her mask is pretty generic and obviously fake. It lacks the realism of practical effects in the likes of indie horror masterpieces such as WolfCop or The Void. Luckily, Bethany avoids showing Bethany for most of the film, similar to The Blair Witch Project.

Ultimately, despite admittedly lackluster CGI, Bethany emerges as a convincing, haunting, and beautifully shot psychological horror flick. Exquisite cinematography and lighting craft a lovely landscape, while strong performances from the leading cast members set up an engaging story. Plus, the psychological elements trounce the supernatural, which makes Bethany incredibly effective. Fresh, gorgeous, and engrossing Bethany shines as a modern horror gem.

Bethany 4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)

Bethany releases in theaters and On Demand April 7 via Uncork’d Entertainment.

Moe Long