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Release Date: July 29, 2016 (Limited and VOD)
Director: Harrison Atkins
MPAA Rating: NR
Run Time: 83 Minutes

With its deadpan treatment of the supernatural (ghosts are depicted as otherwise normal-looking folks with pale, sensitive skin who wear potato sacks to avoid the sun), Harrison Atkins’ Lace Crater at times resembles a Saturday Night Live parody of mumblecore sensibilities. And to be fair, the film dabbles in a particular degree of self-awareness the script pulls off some light jabs at the type of movie it initially establishes itself as before spinning off into something else entirely.

A certain sense of humor is innate, and necessary, for a movie about a woman who has a one-night stand with a ghost. Atkins directs with a steady hand – ensuring that even when the film holds itself back from truly exploring the surrealism inherent to its plot, things remain duly interesting, always ready to go off into an unexpected direction – taking its subtle elements of horror and undertones of critical sexual politics in its wake.

The woman in question is Ruth (Lindsay Burdge), who has this spectral encounter late one night in the Hamptons during an otherwise ordinary weekend getaway with some friends. The ghost is named Michael (Peter Vack). He is quite personable yet awkward, as one would be after materializing in a stranger’s bedroom. He and Ruth end up having sex, which is apparently possible.

In the aftermath of this strange event, Ruth begins to notice some odd things happening to her. She begins exhibiting flu-like symptoms but is not running a fever. She loses track of time, with short-term amnesia becoming commonplace and, even weirder, awakes every morning covered in ectoplasm. After a largely inconclusive blood test, her doctor (William Nadylam) guesses that she has some variety of an uncommon STD but has no idea what it could be.

This is of no help to Ruth of course. She’ll be brushed off as insane if she tells the truth, and she doesn’t have much room to tick anyone off, as her relationship with her best friend Claudette (Jennifer Kim) has become strained thanks to a clash over a (living) man. But as her condition worsens and becomes increasingly difficult to hide, will she have any choice?

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Reading over the plot of Lace Crater, your message-movie detectors might be blinking and buzzing. A different filmmaker could have taken this script and made an ultra-conservative parable, a condemnation of its main character and her sex life. But Atkins takes a different route, instead choosing to attack how society views female sexuality. His main character fears that someone will discover what happened and that she will be harshly judged and ostracized for the choices she made.

But even that route isn’t what the movie is interested in when taken as a whole. It’s more concerned with exploring this mysterious transformation. Lindsay Burdge delivers a solid performance – her terror, fear and anguish palpable. Her interpretation of Ruth is direct and intense as a million questions buzz through the character’s head at once, understandably scattershot and confused.

Atkins mimics this in the movie’s visual style, where key scenes involving direct encounters with Michael and turning points with the aftermath of that fateful night are cut manically – a few frames here, few frames there, as static erupts on the screen in neon colors and incoherent noise obscures the audio track, piling upon an already eerie synth score by Alan Palomo.

But Lace Crater never loses its cool, and that kinda turns into a problem. Nearly every conversation is delivered in a naturalistic style, similar to the works of Joe Swanberg, who has a brief role in this film and served as a producer. Soon this becomes a bit dissonant as Ruth begins to experience more grueling horrors. You can count on one hand the number of times where anyone truly freaks out.

Atkins’ habit of holding the material at arm’s length contributes to a kind of contextual distance, where many critical developments in the second and third acts are never explored to fruition. This ends up taking a bit of impact away from an otherwise strong finale. But Atkins’ raw ambition as a filmmaker and a daringness unseen in most debut features makes the project worthwhile.

Here is a movie which is unquestionably unique and very much interested in bending and twisting its elements to discover something new. It might not go as far as it wants to, but there’s enough intrigue along the way to keep the energy high and the mystery flowing.

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