James Cullen Bressack’s Bethany is as ambiguous as its tagline: “A real American horror story.” Doesn’t that remind you of The Witch? Something that’s so colonial America it bleeds puritanical pestilence and leads witch hunts? Change Bethany’s hook to “It’s a horror movie, for realz!” and you’re more on-point, but don’t expect much from this little-engine-that-can’t. Ghost makeup mimics that of a child covered in flour, while influences are “borrowed” everywhere from The Pact to Housebound. Bressack and co-writer Zack Ward hope to manipulate maternal fears and raise some hairs along the way, only to fall oh-so-short in the most unfulfilling way.
At least there’s Tom Green and Shannen Doherty? Yes – that Tom Green. All watered-down, as if he’s been stuffed full of Ambien.
It all begins when Claire (Stefanie Estes) moves back into her childhood home with hubby Aaron (Zack Ward). She’s been awarded the estate after mother Susan (Doherty) passes, but Claire isn’t exactly thrilled about the relocation. As soon as she returns, a flood of nasty memories project her mother’s abusive beauty pageant treatment – and that’s not all. There was also Claire’s “imaginary” friend Bethany, who knocked on walls and lurked in shadows. Turns out that while Susan may be gone, Bethany still inhabits the home – and she’s not taking Claire’s return lightly.
The shame is, Bethany – the character – factors insignificantly into Claire’s worsening madness. You’ll experience all the expected beats of a wife losing her mind, as Aaron tepidly intervenes. Weird fixations on food (cockroaches in cereal, soup-slurping dinner) and grotesque visions of twine stitch together the bulk of Claire’s deterioration, while Bethany damages her through psychological torment. It’s never especially spooky – mashed corn flakes falling from Aaron’s mouth(?) – or thought out. Just a few whispers here and there, thuds, and strings hanging from a shower head. Never an inkling of what it all means.
Then, when Bethany does make her first appearance, just try holding back a mighty laugh. Here’s the grand reveal:
Aaron and Dr. Brown (Tom Green) are sitting at a kitchen table. The camera cuts to Aaron. Normalcy. Then back to Dr. Brown – only to reveal Bethany’s chalky fingers wrapped around Dr. Brown’s neck. Out of nowhere. We’re not prepared for her porcelain-imperfection appearance, so unrepresentative of low-budget horror films that scrounge enough cash to fund formidable costume designs (at the least). Bethany is a physical being – something practical – but ghost effects look like white paint and a few hours in iMovie. Aaron swings a sharpened knife towards Dr. Brown’s neck in attempted heroism, and then Bethany vanishes, with more cheapness than her entry.
Bethany materializes in full later on, when Claire confronts her demon companion in another hilarious trading of wits. Or, in actuality, a strange scene where Bethany bounds towards Claire’s legs on all fours, disappears and does it again two or so more times. Like a small dog, scurrying then teleporting somehow. No climax, culmination or payoff of investment. This exchange – without a doubt – plays even worse than softcore paranormal Skinemax content, where intentions in moviemaking are questioned beyond constructible boundaries. Bethany is never to be feared, whether terrible CGI waves extend invisible arms from walls or – even worse – a child is covered in shellac. Points are typically awarded for ambition, but only when a constant stream of horror remains somewhat immersible.
Lead actress Stefanie Estes and her companion Ward attempt to strike relationship dramatics, but their connection are flatter than decades-old cola. Jokes range from an Irishman mentioning “corned beef and cabbage” to a Canadian referencing Canadian things (you’ll tune out way before), while the most affectionate line uttered is “You’re my stinky zombie!” Doherty’s rigid mother monster is goofier than she is angry, Green displays zero charisma and there’s such a strange attempt to earn nerd-cred through the weakest references possible (Ewoks goddamit, deep cut!). Horror establishment may be slight, but tension fails to resonate through a single character. No matter how many goddamn meals Ward is shown chomping away on.
Bethany is one of those minimal-to-zero production value indie horrors that will never haunt your nightmares. “Big” names are touted as pandering side characters, while a feeling of disinterest consumes all. The cinematography is either too dark or off-blue, performances are unmemorable and aesthetics are beyond mundane – including the film’s titular terror. This is only for the midnightiest, insane horror fan whose addiction to genre content far outweighs any quality control. And even then, it’s no belle of the ball…or Honey Boo Boo for that matter.