Suspended Animation (2001)

Starring Alex McArthur, Laura Esterman, Sage Allen, Rebecca Harrell

Directed by John D. Hancock

I had the pleasure of speaking with the director, John Hancock, right before seeing this film. Mr. Hancock is no stranger to horror films. His 1971 feature Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is widely held by many fans as a great addition to the horror’s hallowed halls. Loved by Stephen King himself, it is one of the most widely demanded films when it comes to those with an overdue DVD release. Armed with this knowledge, I had to wonder why Mr. Hancock seemed so opposed to label his latest excursion as a “horror” film. It recently screened at the Eerie Horror Film Festival, and while it does contain some ghoulish materials, in the end the whole construct falls flat. Maybe this is because it has no real genre to call home.

Suspended Animation is a study of the psychological aftershocks of a brush with hideousness. It is well filmed with some decent acting, and doesn’t attempt to follow any conventional narrative path at all. That’s not to say it is non-linear, rather it is strictly so. Suspended Animation just didn’t ever go where I thought it would, and is worse for trying so hard to not be a horror film so it never gains a cohesive focus, and in return the payoff is less than it could have been.

A man named Tom, adventuring in the wilderness with friends, wrecks his snowmobile and is taken in by a pair of backwoods oddball sisters. Here he is seemingly welcomed. They attend to him and appear to be about to help him, but there is a nasty secret that this house holds. The sisters are deranged cannibals. They prey on the poor fellas who happen to cross their property. Like a set of patient spiders, the sibling slayers sit and strike only when the opportunity is given to them. They are a mismatched pair of ghoulish gals. Where one is slight, the other is robust. Both are old, both are ugly, both are hungry.

The captured Tom, played by the square jawed Alex McArthur, is bound and psychologically tortured with his own impending consumption. As the two women play with their prey, the tables get quickly turned on them. He plays off the idiosyncracies of the sisters. He uses their esteems to make them do what he wants, in doing so he hopes for escape, but…

Well. I don’t want to ruin HOW it happens, but the point is; he does. I hate giving away a major plot point like this, but the best part of the film is the first 20 minutes with the sisters, and their house, which has to be the best backwoodsy serial killer cabin I have ever seen. It is cozy and sweet, and at the same time creepy and spooky. It’s a shame it could not have played more of a centerpiece in the film.

The rest of the film is about Tom, who in the real world is an animator for Disney (!), tracking down the descendants of one of the sisters. He does this to satiate some sort of internal need to understand the nature of the evil he just came across. This departure from the story is interesting, but with such a great horrific beginning it comes across as just a let down. We are getting a lot of ideas, but they are not fleshed out. I am all for using your imagination to fill in the gaps, but in this it seems less like nuance and more like lack of attention.

The script is by Dorothy Tristan, based on her novel. Tristan is the wife of Hancock, and the book was her attempt to get even with someone who wronged her. While the story is boldly broad, I have to think back to the original discussion with Hancock and his wife before the film. They were so adamant it was not a horror film that as I watched it, I realized that it was this lack of definition that made the film as much of a mess as it was.

If only Hancock had used the Misery-like build up that he had going for him in the cannibal cabin and expanded upon the characters involved there, we could’ve had a character study that was a bit more personal than what is finally delievered. Hancock teases us with this, then abandons it for another tease. If he had stretched that passion play between the differing egos out to a full movie length, he could have made a terror tale for the ages. He definitely created a pair of unforgettable characters. The backwoods beast babes are colorful and demented. Played by Laura Esterman and Sage Allen, the two ooze a weird mix of grandma charm and geriatric ghoulishness. There is a Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? quality to them that just begged for more interaction.

I refuse to ruin movie for people in reviews, so I won’t tell you the end of the film, but just know that as we go on the journey we are tantalized with ideas, but none of them ever play out in a satisfactory manner. We get to see the descendants of these women, and what may be the living manifestation of their inherent evil reborn. There is a lot of talking. There is a lot of investigation, but for all the energy displayed on the screen, we get little to no actual pay off. The script even tries to throw one more twist in at the end, but it’s shallow and when the film nears the two hour mark, it seems like we have beaten the horse for far too long.

Suspended Animation feels like 3 movies mashed together and crammed into a Monday Night Movie of the Week for Lifetime. A real pity. Mr. Hancock, if I may offer some advice: Do not be afraid of the genre you so agonizingly tried to steer clear from with this film. Come back to the fold, man. We await it with great anticipation.

1 ½ out of 5

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