Headspace (2006)

Reviewed by Johnny Butane

Starring Christopher Denham, Erik Kastel, Olivia Hussey, Larry Fesenden, Dee Wallace Stone, Udo Kier

Directed by Andrew van den Houten

I’ve been interested in this movie since the first time I had heard that both Dee Wallace Stone and Olivia Hussey would be starring in it. As the cast rounded out with names like Udo Kier and William Atherton, and the plot was revealed to be something that sounded pretty original, my interest only increased. So how does Headspace measure up to my expectations? To be honest, I’m not really sure…

The story starts off with a bang, literally. We start off at the birthday party for the older of two brothers, and at first everything seems just fine with this family. When the boy’s mother (Sean Young) gets a nosebleed, everyone seems a little too freaked out about it, and things get worse from there. The next scene we find the boys’ coming upon their mother with the remains of the family dog in her lap, though it’s unclear if she did the killing or just found it. Disturbing thought this scene is, it goes by so quick that your left wondering if you really just saw what you thought you saw. Then one night the boys’ father (Fesenden) wakes them up and tells them it’s they have to get out… now. Mom’s following them with some nasty looking knives in her hands, and the only thing dad can do to stop her is show her the business end of a double-barreled shotgun. The end result is messy and showcases a fantastic gore effect that had me hooked.

Cut to about 17 years later. The story picks up with the younger of the two brothers, Alex (newcomer Denham turning it a solid, though at times one-note, performance), who’s living in New York City and experiencing some bad headaches. He’s somehow getting paid to housesit for a couple who are traveling the world (not a bad gig if you can get it) but ends up in the hospital after he passes out in front of his best (and seemingly only) friend who’s stopped by for a visit.

Enter the doctors, who give him a thorough checkup and declare that physically he’s fine. Mentally, however, they determine that he’s using more of his frontal lobe for cognitive thought than any human ever studied. Dr. Gold (Atherton) wants to keep him on for more tests, but Dr. Bell (Stone) insists he’s fine and should be allowed to leave. Alex’s only concern are the massive headaches that seem to come from nowhere, but reveals to Dr. Bell that he seems to be learning things faster than he’s ever been able to before. Not only that, but he’s gaining knowledge without even studying anything, as is evident when Dr. Gold starts to ask him a complicated math question that he’s able to answer before he’s even finished asking it. Creepy.

Meanwhile, Alex is developing an obsession for chess, a game he’s always hated. In Central Park there’s a man named Harry (Kastel) who plays for money and always wins, so Alex makes it a point to keep working at it until he beats him. One day Alex follows him home in order to get one last game in, and finds that Harry’s also a painter who’s forte seems to be nightmarish images, some off which Alex has been seeing when he falls asleep at night.

A spiral begins when he sees some of the things Harry has put to canvas, and suddenly everyone that Alex has come into contact with start dying in increasingly nasty ways, torn apart by some unidentified beast and left in a nearly unrecognizable condition. As Alex’s intelligence grows, so does the strength of this demon.

Headspace is an accomplished first-time effort for director van den Houten. Usually people aren’t able to get this kind of cast for a feature debut, so it’s a testament to the quality of the material that he was able to get such a great ensemble. Granted, most of the bigger names featured get nothing more than glorified cameos, as Denham and Kastel are the real central characters of the movie, but just to see Olivia Hussey and Dee Wallace Stone conversing in the same scene gave me a thrill, even if the dialogue is a bit overdramatic.

Which brings me to one of the issues I had with Headspace; the dialogue. For the most part it’s passable enough, but there are far too many vague conversations and dramatic pauses; after a while you almost want the filmmakers to sledgehammer some plot home for you. Denham’s turn as Alex is the worst offender of this, never saying what one would think it’d be logical for him to say until it’s too late and the damage is done. His enhanced ability to retain information apparently does nothing for his ability to communicate, and it can get frustrating.

Eventually the sledgehammer does fall however, in the somewhat traditional method of introducing a character with all the answers just long enough for him to pass that information on, then they’re never heard from again. In this setting it was forgivable, since the concept behind Headspace is more or less unique, so it’s not like any background information about what’s happening to Alex would be that readily available. It’s a shame that such an interesting concept could be thought up but a more unconventional way of spelling it out to the main character, and in turn the audience, was not.

Since we’re on the subject of issues with the film, let’s discuss the monster, shall we? For a good portion of the movie the only thing you see are the hands of the beast, which unfortunately won’t do much to assure you that it’s a cool looking creature as they’re quite obviously big and rubbery. When the beast is finally revealed, though, its design harkens back to man-in-suit creations, something you don’t see nearly enough of in film today, and actually does look pretty damn cool… except for its nose. I won’t go much further into detail about it, as it shouldn’t be too spoiled for you, but suffice it to say it’s nose pretty much ruins any intimidation factor the creature had for me up to this point. It’s a shame, really, because the rest of the makeup effects in Headspace are top-notch, so it’s clear the team they had for the movie knew what they were doing. Why they decided on such a bizarre facial feature for their monster is perplexing, to say the least.

Thankfully, though, Headspace is not about a monster; it’s about the slow descent into some form of madness that Alex is on, and that concept it tackles well. It seemed to me at times that the filmmakers weren’t even too sure where the story was going, however, the ending being a shinning example of that. The film just kind of ends with no form of resolution or explanation. Normally that sort of thing doesn’t bother me too much, but when you’re presenting a varied amount of ideas and concepts to your audience, it’s a good idea to try and bring them all together in the end so your viewers don’t walk away confused. Of course it does leave itself open to interpretation, which may be what they were going for in the first place.

Another thing I will give the film as a whole; it looks great. Cinematographer William M. Miller does a masterful job with the atmosphere of the film, using lighting and skillful camera work to bring a palpable sense of dread to the proceedings. You never feel completely safe for the entire running time, there’s always a threat of something bad lurking around the next corner, giving the movie an element of unpredictability that helped keep me interested from beginning to end. That coupled with the numerous questions that are asked but never completely answered makes Headspace the kind of film that will, if nothing else, keep people talking about it after it’s over.

Overall this is the kind of movie I wish could come from indie filmmakers more often. It challenged me to draw my own conclusions, something that rarely if ever happens these days which is why, even after writing all this, I’m still not sure if it met with my expectations or not. It left an impression on me, and for that I have to respect it.

3 ½ out of 5

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Johnny Butane

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