3.5 out of 5 stars

Nominally a tale of supernatural possession, in reality Threshold is barely a horror movie at all. Powell Robinson and Patrick R. Young’s super-low-budget second feature, shot on a pair of iPhones in less than a fortnight, is much more interested in the relationship between Virginia (Madison West) and her brother Leo (Joey Millin)—which starts prickly but slowly softens—than it is squeezing every last shiver out of the sinister set-up.

However, while likely to disappoint horror fans hoping for Exorcist-style blazing eyes and rotating heads, Threshold manages to maintain a queasy and uncomfortable feeling throughout (aided by Nick Chuba’s score). And this allusive, strangely hypnotic film is also refreshing in crediting its audiences with a good deal of intelligence—enough to at least try to explain the inexplicable incidents within it, even if they don’t succeed (because there’s not really enough detail provided for any explanation to fit satisfactorialy).

Near the beginning, as Leo arrives at Virginia’s home (apparently somewhere in the midwest of America), a small red figure dashes past him in the hallway of her apartment block—surely a nod to Nicolas Roeg’s psychological horror classic Don’t Look Now (1973), another film in which it’s not easy to separate the supernatural from the emotional. Leo finds Virginia in bed, sick and screaming, and is convinced it’s down to the drugs she’s been taking. She tells him she was cursed after joining a cult to get clean, but he insists it’s just withdrawal symptoms. “Did you piss off a gypsy?” he asks sarcastically.

Still, off they head in his decal-covered car, driving west to find another cult member with whom she claims she was “bound” during an occult ceremony. On the way they talk, talk, and talk some more (much of the chatter improvised), slowly revealing their true natures, their histories, and their relationship. She, it emerges, was once a lawyer but lost her job to the drugs; he appears to be a dweeby junior high school music teacher, but it turns out he was once a proficient thief too, and she goads him back into it.

Little is overtly supernatural here, though an ouija board makes an appearance, and at one point Virginia writhes in what appears to be the grip of an unseen force. There’s a single jump scare, but it doesn’t go anywhere and serves largely to keep us on edge, as do constant reminders that nothing is quite right—that the pair are, perhaps, on the threshold of a darker, unseen world. One night a car sits outside their motel, apparently watchful, before driving away. On another occasion Leo wants to go to karaoke but “nowhere is safe”, Virginia says, “nowhere is fun”.

It’s only at the end that Threshold gets into full-blown horror movie territory, and this is perhaps the least successful part of the film. It defuses the tension, apparently eliminates the important possibility that the curse and the cult are all in her mind, and also makes the film’s minimal production values look rather obvious. (They’re barely noticeable elsewhere and, in fact, the almost complete absence of any people other than the leads contributes to the peculiar ambience.)

Up until then, however, Threshold is a surprisingly compelling brother-and-sister drama, somewhat reminiscent of the earlier parts of Jeremy Gardner’s The Battery (2012). Robinson and Young, whose joint directorial debut was Bastard (2015), make the most of interesting locations and capture some creative angles on their iPhones. West and Millin, meanwhile, are utterly believable in roles which occupy almost every moment of screen time, conveying well the subtle changes of mood and tone which don’t need to be spoken out loud between two people who’ve known each other forever.

In their relationship Threshold seems to be putting forward an addiction metaphor. Virginia needs Leo in an obvious sense (to rescue her from her difficulties) but he may, equally well, need her to give him validation. The final shot confirms the power of their bond, leaving open whether it is a positive or a damaging one; there are few answers in Threshold, but many questions that tantalise, and if they are left hanging in the air, that’s much of the appeal of this modestly-scaled but effectively off-kilter film.

USA | 2020 | 78 MINUTES | 2.00:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

frame rated divider arrow video

Cast & Crew

directors: Powell Robinson & Patrick Robert Young.
writer: Patrick Robert Young.
starring: Joey Millin, Madison West & Daniel Abraham Stevens.