Headspace | Inhuman Swill | William Shunn



This film review was originally published online at Science Fiction Weekly, February 16, 2006.

Alex (Christopher Denham) is a bright young man but aimless, with not much of a past, not much of a future, and not much to do but paint his fingernails black. He house-sits for a wealthy couple on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, but only begins living up to his potential when he falls in with the colorful speed-chess crowd at a nearby park. He loses his first match with champion Harry (Erick Kastel) very quickly, but something makes him look forward to their next match with eagerness.

Never a fan of chess, suddenly Alex begins to grasp the game like never before. In fact, he grasps every subject like never before, absorbing chess strategy and Cervantes with equal aplomb. It doesn’t take a genius tell that he’s becoming one, and still his mental capacity continues to grow. Too bad his new braininess comes at a cost. He’s having visions too, glimpses of a childhood that never was his—an older brother, a mother’s knife, a father’s shotgun, and a terrible, implacable evil ripping the family apart.

Alex wakes up in the hospital after a particularly bad episode, having blacked out and nearly died. The doctors find nothing wrong with him save for a remarkable amount of brain activity. They discharge him into the care of Dr. Murphy (Olivia Hussey), a research psychologist writing a book on the “brain switch” that unleashes the potential of human intelligence.

The chess matches in the park with Harry continue, but when Alex at last visits Harry’s loft he finds paintings disturbingly like the images from his visions. More disturbing, people he knows have begun to die, mauled by a monster straight out of his dreams. But no one, least of all Dr. Murphy, will take him literally when he tries to warn them he’s being stalked by demons from hell.

Alex’s only chance is to unravel the mystery of his visions before he loses his sanity—unless maybe he already has.

Inside its characters’ heads—literally

Horror aficionados, watch this year for Headspace to play a theater or festival somewhere near you. I had fun and it scared me, which is all I ask of a movie like this.

Some horror movies work by evoking a mood of dread. Some rely on sudden shocks and gore. Headspace, for the most part, finds the right balance between the two extremes for the most part. Director Andrew van den Houten, helming his first feature-length outing, sets the tone with a tense and frightening opening sequence in which a father must escape with his two boys from their demon-possessed mother. The scene ends on a truly gruesome and bravura note.

Van den Houten steers the action into present-day New York City with a confident hand, resisting the temptation to hurry the scares along. The story unfolds at its own pace, bring out the sense of gothic menace that lies beneath the surface of Manhattan’s venerable old neighborhoods. Christopher Denham in the role of Alex creates a believable portrait of a character coming to grips with bewildering new abilities. Some of the most effective scenes feature Alex reexperiencing the wonder and terror of childhood, when the night was huge and we didn’t yet know what was and was not possible.

The moments of gore are applied judiciously, and not without a macabre sense of humor. One character, finding himself in need of a weapon, gulps down the last of his beer before raising the bottle like a club. A shot framed through the gaping wound in a shotgun-blasted skull slyly nods to the film’s progenitors. And it’s delightful, in this city, that when Alex seeks midnight refuge in a church, it’s not the standard Catholic cathedral but Episcopal instead.

Van den Houten does stumble from time to time. We’re told more than shown some aspects of Alex’s developing powers, the pacing of some scenes is awkward, and the movie, strangely, loses its urgency in moments when Alex is fleeing for his life. Also, the young director does not always seem to have firm control of his veteran actors. Sean Young (Blade Runner), William Atherton (Ghostbusters, Die Hard) and especially Udo Kier (Suspiria, Blade, Dogville) do fine work, but Dee Wallace Stone (E.T., The Frighteners) and Olivia Hussey (Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet) don’t seem to have been directed so much as wound up with a key and released. (Their one long scene together plays like the March of the Wooden Dolls.) And charactor actor Mark Margolis (Pi, Requiem for a Dream) is laughably over-the-top as a former KGB scientist.

Still, the low-budget Headspace is a remarkably assured debut for a director who’s still only 26. If his abilities continue to grow like his character’s, his will certainly be a career to watch.  

Starring Christopher Denham, Sean Young, William Atherton, Dee Wallace Stone, Olivia Hussey and Udo Kier
Screenplay by Steve Klausner and William M. Miller
Story by Troy McCombs
Directed by Andrew van den Houten
Not rated
Through February 19th in New York

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