BHFF 2022 Old Flame Review- Simplicity At Its Triggering Best
Women have been vulnerable since the beginning of time. Some by birth and others by circumstance. Even after all these years, we still have to be guarded. Those who look like allies could just as easily be foes. Christopher Denham’s Old Flame playing as part of Brooklyn Horror Film Fest 2022, trods that middle ground where no one is as they seem, and even the best pretenders can’t hide their secrets forever.
Calvin and Rachel have some history. The awkward pair meets again after years apart at their college reunion. Calvin is the organizer, and Rachel is an early attendee. Andy Gershonzen(Calvin) and Rebeca Robles(Rachel) are at first awkward and guarded with one another. What should have been a chance for the former couple to laugh and reminisce takes a dark and violent turn when it becomes apparent someone is lying about their relationship. Is it just their perception that is skewed, or is there something one of them has been hiding all these years? Calvin is a successful financial analyst with a pretty wife and two adorable daughters. Rachel swings wildly between being a confident professional and a dangerous temptress.
The film opens with a violent scene that only makes sense later and keeps the viewer on edge and misinformed as Old Flame progresses. Old Flame is a masterclass in subversion and simple filmmaking. The two-person show could be stale in others’ hands, but Denham is a master at keeping the tension high and the viewer captivated. It’s like watching a slow-motion car crash. You know you should look away, yet you are mesmerized by the horror unfolding. Of course, it helps that the two leads are fantastic and fully committed to their respective manias. You are never quite sure who the predator and prey are. Such is the power of the script, which teeters perfectly between victim blaming, men bashing, and sympathetic disbelief. It’s a precarious position that could easily be read as insulting, dismissive, or worse.
It never falls into this negative space, though. The script constantly keeps the viewer from finding footing in either character. Either one of them could be lying or both. This gorgeous chamber piece will undoubtedly see comparisons to films like Promising Young Woman, but it is its own quieter but somehow more disturbing beast. What if the flirty banter so often seen in romcoms is a mask for something twisted and disturbing? Split into three acts, each part turns on a dime and changes your perspective. It’s not that the signs weren’t there. It’s just that we are indoctrinated to dismiss them. Calvin is a doting father to his daughters just seconds before loading up some internet porn. It’s not an unforgivable sin but coupled with the offhand comments to his girls about their mother not being much fun, and it becomes a troublesome pattern.
At first stilted and artificial, Denham’s script is deceptively smart. These are two people who are familiar with one another and yet widely uncomfortable. As the moments tick by, Calvin and Rachel’s dry language becomes boastful, coy, and finally accusatory. Much like the cycle of a relationship that goes very badly, what started with so much promise ends in disaster. Most of us have never had breakups like this, however. Particularly the third act bathes in speech that is aggressive and oddly funny. Lines like “apex-predator of pussy” are harmful and ugly, and yet force a reluctant laugh. Perhaps because the tension is so high, we need release however inappropriate.
It’s precisely that emotional intelligence that keeps the viewer from choosing a side for most of the film. Ultimately, we feel as much to blame as either Calvin or Rachel. Denham’s film is so slyly manipulative we don’t realize we have been led to this place until it is too late to turn back. It says a lot about how women are trained to think that even in the face of the final act reveal, I’m not sure who I believe. This will be a triggering film. It will mean something different to each person, and Denham intentionally places the viewer in an uncomfortable voyeuristic position where we are forced to make a judgment. Every woman has gone through something like this, even if we don’t recognize it or can’t admit it.
To say it is a fun movie would be wrong. To say it is something that keeps you on the edge of your seat is more accurate. There is never a moment where you feel safe. There is no stable ground in this shifting theater of the wronged. Hours later, I’m still unsure how I feel. Old Flame is meticulously written and incredibly acted, however. It proves that special effects and blood aren’t needed to make a truly terrifying movie. It is a film that should have everyone talking and should be necessary viewing.
You can find all our Brookly Horror Film Fest 2022 coverage here.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.