“The Power” (Nevermore Film Festival 2017): Psychological Horror Spiked With More Visceral Cult Horrors

The Power - Cult Leader

Some of the most effective horror comes from fear of the unknown. In this way, there is much overlap between horror, mystery, and suspense genres. Keeping an audience in the dark as to what is going on or as to just who is in control can increase the level of terror in a film. In some ways, writer/director Paul HillsThe Power (Nevermore Film Festival 2017) can be considered a mystery/suspense tale, though, in the end, it is decidedly firmly within the horror genre. The film, which played at the Nevermore Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina on the weekend of February 24 – 26, 2017, follows a woman as she is abducted and held prisoner by a cult. As she tries to befriend her captors in an attempt to escape, the question arises as to who is deceiving whom? The character-driven story has a strong vein of psychological horror running throughout. When it does take a turn into more visceral thrills, they are all the more terrifying for the character groundwork done earlier in the film. Strong, dedicated performances by an excellent cast help keep the audience invested in the fate of the characters.

The Power - Jess and Magda
Magda (Grace Vallorani) tries to connect with Jess (Constance Carter)

Magda Montaine (Grace Vallorani) is an anthropologist as well as a somewhat successful author of popular non-fiction anthropology books. One evening, after leaving a release party for her latest book, she and her friend Michael (Jon-Paul Gates) make the mistake of catching a ride in an unlicensed taxi. Unfortunately for them, the driver is a follower of a cult dedicated to Baphomet. After Magda and Paul are assaulted and rendered unconscious by the driver, Magda awakens to find herself held captive in what appears to be a cage/animal pen. Initially, her only contact with any other people is a quiet young woman, Jess (Constance Carter), who brings her meager rations of food and water. Magda realizes that she can use her insight from her anthropology studies to try to make a connection with Jess so that she may possibly find a way to escape. At the very least, she hopes to survive until her husband, Paul (Jonnie Hurn), and the police can find her. At the same time, the leader of the cult, Del (Valentine Pelka), begins visiting Magda, with the presumed intention of winning her over to the ways of the cult. Eventually, the stakes become even higher for Magda, with more than one life hanging upon her possible escape. Can Magda use her knowledge of human nature to help her escape? Ultimately, it becomes a question of who has The Power over whom?

The Power - Magda chained
Magda (Grace Vallorani) strains at her chains so she can try to chisel her way out of her cell.

The Power is first and foremost a character-driven, psychological horror film. The main questions are, “Can Magda escape?” and “What does the cult have planned for her?” While these questions remain central to the story, the more interesting aspects of the film are related to character motivations and loyalties. Initially, for Magda, these are fairly clear. She is trying to befriend Jess so that she can either gain her loyalty and assistance in escaping or, at the very least, gain enough of Jess’ trust so she can take advantage of it and escape on her own. When Del enters the picture, things start to get a little muddied, in a good way. Is Jess really become friends with Magda, or is she simply playing along for the sake of the cult? Is Magda playing Del, pretending to slowly come over to his way of thinking, or is she genuinely succumbing to Stockholm Syndrome? The filmmakers keep the character’s loyalties hidden, only showing the audience what is going on at the surface. This keeps the viewers invested in the story, as it is hard to judge exactly who is deceiving whom. There are hints, to be certain, but just enough to tantalize the audience. Even when it appears to be clear just what is going on, there are still shifts and surprises in store. It is not until the final scenes that the full nature of various characters loyalties and motivations become clear.

The Power - Civilized Del
Del (Valentine Pelka) expounds upon the cult’s philosophy.

While the bulk of The Power can be described as psychological horror, the filmmakers do not shy away from more tangible thrills. During the initial abduction, Magda catches glimpses of the cult and some physical horrors that they are inflicting upon her and Paul. Once in the cage, the physical treatment of Magda by the cultists can be a bit disturbing, though, thankfully, it never veers into “torture porn” territory. That is not to say it is not difficult to watch. It is just that the violence is there in service to the story and not there for cheap thrills. Late in the film, as events come to a head, there is a shift in the kind of horrors presented. Just as the cultists shed their more civilized behavior for the more primal nature of their rituals, the horror shifts from psychological to a more visceral form. While this may sound out of place for a film that concentrates on psychological horror for most of its runtime, it actually makes sense within the story. In fact, it adds an excellent capstone, becoming all the more horrific when compared to the more grounded horror elements from earlier in the film.

The Power - Del in Mask
Del (Valentine Pelka) in his ceremonial mask

With much of the action confined to primarily one location, Magda’s basement cell, The Power relies heavily upon the shifting relationships between the characters, and the film succeeds as well as it does thanks to a strong cast. This is Grace Vallorani’s film. Her strong performance as the captive Magda is top notch. Magda feels like a fully fleshed-out character, showing both power and vulnerability. Her interactions with the other characters, especially those with Jess and Del, show a depth and complexity that enhances the core psychological elements of the film. Constance Carter’s turn as Jess is equally fascinating, though on a quieter level. She imbues Jess with a vulnerability and naiveté that work exceedingly well in the service of the story. Jess’ apparent innocence is in stark contrast to the air of menace and raw power the surround Valentine Pelka’s Del. The sense of intellectual control Pelka gives Del makes him a perfect foil for Valloriani’s strong Magda. Their subsurface clash of wills adds to the suspense of the film.

The Power - Bad End
Not every character comes out OK in the end.

The Power is an excellent thriller/horror hybrid that uses the mystery of what is going on to draw the audience in and keep them invested in the film. At its heart, it is a psychological thriller built upon the shifting loyalties and hidden motivations of its central characters. When it shifts gears into more visceral horror late in the game, it does so naturally and in a way that makes complete sense within the story. A strong cast, headed by an amazing and dedicated performance by Grace Vallorani, contributes greatly to the success of the film. Those looking for a creepy, disturbing, and thought-provoking psychological horror film that does not shy away from the gore when it is called for should be sure to check out The Power.

The Power  4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Poster for The Power
“We Are Everywhere”

Paul Cardullo
Paul Cardullo is a North Carolina indy filmmaker and horror fan. His tastes range from art-house horror to low-budget schlock to indie gems to Slovenia killer hillbilly flicks. When not watching films, he helps make them. From actor to boom operator to doughnut wrangler, he makes himself useful wherever he can. Paul believes it is sometimes necessary to suffer for one’s art. He has endured being covered in [censored], having [censored] thrown at him, and spending over a year with muttonchops and a 70’s-style mustache. When not being abused for the sake of his craft, Paul works on computers and watches as many obscure (and not so obscure) movies as he can fit in.