Sunday 29 September 2013

The Root of the Problem (2013)

Director: Ryan Spindell
Stars: Alison Gallaher, Ptolemy Slocum, Brea Grant and Chad Jamian Williams
This film was an official selection at the 9th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
Ryan Spindell, who wrote, produced and directed this short film, clearly likes period settings. His 2007 film, Kirksdale, an International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival selection in 2008, was set in the sixties at a rural Florida mental instutition; this one is a decade older, set in the unmistakeable America of the fifties. He also seems to be building a common theme in his films about helplessness. Kirksdale was full of it, beginning with a young lady being driven to an asylum by a cop who tries to rape her within the first minute. The Window has an old man abandoned in a care home and the title of Bully speaks for itself. Here, the helpless character is Mary, waiting in the dentist's chair for Dr Clayton to pull her wisdom teeth. Spindell does a lot here with very little, happy to let the story wait so he can torment Mary by peppering her boredom with distractions: a noisy water pipe, some bizarre screaming from nextdoor and a fly who we follow into the room through ducting behind the opening credits.

Eventually, as her growing fear persuades her that it's time to leave, Dr Clayton finally shows up, as genial and full of calming jokes as you might expect. Ptolemy Slocum and Brea Grant, as Nurse Su, bounce well off each other in what believably seems like the hundredth enaction of an old routine to politely break down the resistance of their patients. Everything is completely normal, but of course it doesn't take long for Spindell to ratchet up the tension. He starts with a cringeworthy anaesthetic jab, guaranteed to have any audience squirming in their seats, but follows it up with Clayton's recounting of the original tooth fairy legend, all about grues who ate bones and teeth, utterly out of place in the doctor's calming routine so clearly setting us up for something. We're left to figure out how to read it all: as a literal piece or a manifestation of Mary's existing fear, perhaps enhanced by anaesthesia. It could even be a riff on snake oil, sparked by the use of Dr P Q Finkelman's Ultra-Calming Tablets.

Really, of course, it's all the above: it's all about the common fear that many of us have when visiting the dentist, built by a few choice impressions conjured out of the surroundings and given focus by an unfortunate choice of words. Or is it? Spindell is very good at letting our imaginations loose, placing a lid on them to rein us back in to reality and then leaving just a little hint that maybe we were right all along. He also clearly plays on our fear of authority, whether that be the people who run an asylum, a care home or the dentist's surgery we see here. He uses talented effects folk to launch our fantasies but equally talented actors to tamper them back down. Slocum and Grant, both vastly experienced in film and television, are excellent here, while the much less experienced Alison Gallaher does a fair job of staying within our focus of attention while anaesthetised and in the presence of scene stealers. The humour is solid too, even if it begins with an outrageous pun: Mary's appointment is for 2.30.

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