‘He Never Left’ FilmQuest Review: A Picture That Chokes on Missed Opportunities
I checked out the world premiere of He Never Left during its FilmQuest premiere and I came away with very mixed feelings. There are many facets of this film that work remarkably well. Case in point, the flick has a strong leading man in Colin Cunningham (of SyFy’s Blood Drive). His turn as Gabe is impressive and he effectively carries the picture for the first 60 minutes. Additionally, the central conceit of a man confined to his motel room with a killer on the loose makes a great setup for a horror picture. But in spite of some promising components, the entire affair goes completely off the rails in the third act. And not in the enjoyable, scenery-chewing kind of way. I mean things just kind of fall apart.
Gabe is a man on the run from the law. His ex, Carly (Jessica Staples), checks into a roadside motel for him, giving Gabe a place to lay low until he can make his next move. Gabe’s plans to stay off the grid are thwarted when sounds emanating from the room next door pull him and Carly into a twisted web of violence and outright trickery.
I made mention of the film’s premise lending itself nicely to a horror picture and I mean that with the utmost sincerity. In fact, I think the idea of a man on the run confined to a motel room and forced to contend with a killer is nothing short of genius. That setup effectively renders him unable to leave the scene or call for help and believably so. Unfortunately, a promising premise only goes so far, and matters fall apart at the onset of the third act.
A script that needed some retooling is a large part of what derails the proceedings here. Writer/director James Morris did a bang-up job on the skeletal outline. But once the killer arrives on the scene, it’s as if the wind is let out of the film’s sails. Matters fizzle, rather than flourish after the introduction of the antagonist. A sequence that sees Gabe chased by the killer would have gone a long way. But that never materializes.
Rather than serving up some intense cat-and-mouse energy, the final 30 minutes are used to offload some exposition and wrap up the narrative. But the conclusion doesn’t offer much closure. It feels like the film just ends, almost as if the production ran out of funding and had to stop there. Important details about the antagonist are revealed during the end credits. But revealing those details there feels like an afterthought; too little, too late. I wish Morris had given the screenplay a few more passes and provided viewers with an ending more fitting to the promising first and second acts.
The first two acts are effective in part because Cunningham is the primary screen presence. And a compelling presence he is. Cunningham turns in a nuanced performance here. He is slightly more seasoned than some of his costars and manages to make his character’s descent into paranoia a compelling ride. For the first 60 minutes, we are his captive audience, and watching him grow increasingly unhinged is painful, in a good way. He helps establish a profound sense of tension long before the actual antagonist arrives on the scene. Ironically, the arrival of the film’s villain serves to derail the tension established previously.
Aside from a first-rate performance by Cunningham, the flick also benefits from some gorgeous cinematography. The picture captures the fall season in all its most intoxicating glory, with rich, saturated depictions of color that are so vivid, that it almost feels like you could reach inside the screen and touch them. Props to cinematographer Michael Ballif for a job well done.
All in all, I was left underwhelmed by He Never Left. If the film had a supporting cast that was just a little more polished and a screenplay that took greater advantage of a promising premise, this horror thriller could have been really chilling.
The picture made its world premiere at FilmQuest on Thursday, October 26th. No distribution details are available as of the publication of this post.
James Morris shows a level of promise as a director but this film never reaches its full potential.