Kim Basinger is shrewdly cast as downtrodden suburban mother, Della, in Susan Montfordís accomplished horror/thriller debut WHILE SHE WAS OUT, based on Nebula Award winning author Edward Bryantís 1988 novella of the same name.
Della is the abused wife of Kenneth (Craig Sheffer) who puts up with her husbandís bullying due to her love for Tammi (Erika-Shaye Gair) and Terri (Luke Gair) and low self esteem. When Kenneth returns home, from work to find the family home a mess due to the childrenís toys lying everywhere and the housework not done he threatens his wife and Della is driven out of the house in the pouring rain for late festive shopping.
Following a series of minor mishaps that put Dellaís nerves on edge, she returns to the now deserted car park where she is accosted by a gang of four youths. When a security guard doing the late rounds comes to her aid, he is shot dead by gang member Chuckie (Lukas Haas). Whilst the gang argue over the shooting, Della manages to crawl back to her car and a car chase ensues along the dark suburban highways. Della crashes her vehicle on a deserted building site lying close to some woods, and the scene is then set for some riveting tension as the gang stalk their prey in an attempt top silence the only witness to their crime.
What would appear on paper to be yet another variation on the woman in peril / slasher genre turns out to be a very intelligent feminist revisionist thriller that is all Michael Winnerís exploitative vigilante efforts were not. Susan Montfordís script wisely eschews the traditional trappings of the horror movie by subverting everything that usually comes with slasher territory, whilst still treating its audience to some exquisite special effects courtesy of Bill Mills that make the best use of the implements from Dellaís car tool box.
The film is to be congratulated with presenting its audience with believable characters that act as you might expect them to do in real situations. Here we have a fumbling, disorganised street gang whose petty arguments and reasoning allow their victim to stay one step ahead when she needs to, as opposed to the usual psychotic killer with half a brain who somehow manages to always outwit his more intelligent prey by tracking them down swiftly and with the dexterity that belies that of a disfigured, shambling in-bred.
Viewers expecting to see more of Basingerís body, following some clever camera angles that showcase the actorís lithe body in tight jeans and tee-shirt early on in the film, might be disappointed that from the point in which Della leaves the house in full winter warmers for the mall, to the filmís climax, Basinger doesnít so much as remove her raincoat. This is just one of the clever subversions that Montag brings to the horror genre. You want a sex scene well you get one, but chauvinists who might delight in seeing their helpless female held down and screaming as she yields any last shreds of control whilst succumbing to her rapist will have a rude awakening. For reasons that become all too clear, in a scene that is all the more disturbing for its transgression of expected film conventions, itís the male who finds himself held down and on the receiving end of Dellaís passionate advances.
The film is cleverly shot in real-time so we experience everything that would befall its characters, and itís the very mundane occurrences of everyday life that the director exploits in order to add to the believability of her characters and in the case of Della bring her vulnerability to the fore in order to generate audience sympathy. Not many films have their protagonist answer the natural call of nature whilst being pursued by a gang in woods, but Montford allows her victim the grace without resorting to exploitation by obscuring the act with a clever camera set-up that shields the relevant act with careful manipulation of undergrowth that in the hands of another filmmaker might be filmed in leering close up for the more insalubrious amongst its prospective audience.
Basinger turns in a superb performance transforming from nervous, vulnerable housewife to avenging, mother protector that is wholly believable. With its low budget and small-key release, WHILE SHE WAS OUT might be destined for nothing more than brief accolades in the small press, which is a shame, because itís star turns in a better performance here than her oscar-winning turn in LA CONFIDENTIAL. Kudos too, for Lukas Haas who finally shakes off any cute pretensions that may have remained from childhood roles in the likes of WITNESS (1985) and THE RYAN WHITE STORY (1989).
Despite this being her directorial debut, Susan Montford looks assured in the task. Like Neil Marshallís THE DESCENT (2005) she brings to the audience much food for thought with her reconstruction of male archetypes around female icons. Like the character Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) in Marshallís film, Della exhibits extreme violence towards her male partner at the end of the film, not only retaining audience sympathy but also eliciting further respect from viewers as a result. A male protagonist doing the same under similar circumstances would be unthinkable.
WHILE SHE WAS OUT proves that thereís much left to be explored in the horror/thriller genre, and deserves to be seen by a much wider audience than its low-key release on DVD might allow.
Carl T. Ford
Directed by Susan Montford
English language / Germany/Canada/USA / 2008 / 82 minutes / Colour
Region 2 / PAL
An Optimum Home Entertainment Release
DVD release date 27th October 2008
WHILE SHE WAS OUT