With the world being the way it is right now, isolation movies can be exactly what we need or a little too on the nose. As we each tackle our own level of quarantine, from the James Stewart Rear Window going-crazy-watching-people-carry-on-as-normal-from-your-window type to the Jack Nicholson The Shining going-crazy-completely-distancing-from-all-of-civilization type, there is something all levels have in common. The “going crazy” part – or put more sympathetically, the effect isolation can have on our mental health, especially for those of us with pre-existing mental health concerns.
Enter THE VOICES, a psychological thriller from Wesley Alley (The Girl with the Bangs, Sockmonster) and Bradley Fowler (A Chance in Hell, Texas Heart), released by Three Tales Productions, Cinedigm, and Kaleidoscope on Video on Demand on May 12, 2020.
Escaping the trauma of a failed engagement, Grace Crawford (Amanda Markowitz, Patchwork, Love Meet Hope) seeks sanctuary at her remote childhood home, now owned by her sister, Catherine (Victoria Matlock, As The World Turns, Love Meet Hope). What should be a time of reconnection and healing soon becomes fraught as psych-student Grace realizes Catherine is suffering from the same schizophrenic disorder that claimed their mother many years ago. As the strain and isolation begin to take their toll, Grace finds herself mentally spiralling down to meet her sister and must fight not only for her sanity but to save herself and her family from serious harm.
THE VOICES is a stylish exploration of the terrifying effects mental illness, especially when passed down genetically through generations, can have on an isolated family. The setting is suitably grimy and claustrophobic, with the palette of greys and browns mimicking a drug-induced dulling of the senses. Innovative camera angles and framing keep things visually interesting, while the use of light and dark echoes the fracturing of the character’s personalities.
Beyond its aesthetics, THE VOICES gives us a somewhat mixed bag of performances from its cast. Amanda Markowitz recently won the award for “Best Actress” for her portrayal of Grace at the Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival and it is her performance that really drives the film forward. Grace is a relatable character right from the start, and Markowitz’s wide-eyed wonder descending through unease into sheer terror is a believable and well-acted journey. Even in her mentally weakest moments, Markowitz gives Grace a strength that makes us really care about what happens to her and a belief that however misguided, she has a chance of making it through this vacation from hell.
Broadway star Victoria Matlock makes some interesting choices in her role as paranoid schizophrenic Catherine. Her behaviour cycles expertly through a myriad of emotions, from distant to distraught, from caring to creepy. Matlock does a great job of portraying some of the key symptoms of the condition, including delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech, and social distancing, and of a woman who appears to be trying to manage her disorder. Her dissociative personality, “Penny”, however, is problematic. Dissociation, or the splitting of personalities each with their own name, voice and characteristics, has often been cited as a symptom of schizophrenia but is actually a completely separate disorder (Dissociative identity Disorder/Multiple Personality Disorder). Catherine seems aware of this alter, claiming her as a tool to help her deal with the absence of her daughter, Abby, which is a somewhat novel and bizarre plot decision.
The arrival of “Penny” is signalled by a switch to a voice and accent that can only be described as “Victorian cockney ghost girl”, creating an effect that is more amusing, and occasionally irritating, than unsettling. As the sisters’ life together descends into barely contained chaos, this leads to Matlock slipping in and out of the Penny voice mid-sentence at times, which, while understandable in terms of reflecting Catherine’s loosening grip on her condition, creates a messy and confusing performance that ultimately undermines her believability.
THE VOICES also features Brendan Sexton III (Russian Doll, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – or as I screamed as soon as I saw him on screen “Warren” from Empire Records!) as the cheating ex, David. Young talent Juliana Sada (This Is Us) is impressively creepy as Catherine’s daughter Abby. And, giving a show-stealing performance with all the tongue-in-cheek subtleties that you would expect from such an experienced actor, is horror icon Lin Shaye (The Grudge, Insidious: The Last Key) as the mysterious “Vagabond.”
Written by co-director Bradley Fowler, THE VOICES is a compelling story with lofty ambitions. The relationship between paranormal activity and mental illness is a fascinating one, which THE VOICES briefly touches upon before discarding it in favour of more down-to-earth forces. The same can be said of the religious aspect to the movie, carried through Catholic imagery and prayer; although its presence is understandable due to the religious element of many schizophrenic delusions, it ultimately seems tacked on. The sisters do not seem particularly religious, beyond saying grace before a meal. The crosses on the walls of the house are little beyond set dressing. The character of The Vagabond, who serves as religious protection personified, is essentially negated which is a crime considering Shaye’s fantastic performance. This leaves us with several strands that may have been intended as red herrings, or as nods to prevailing theories and research, but that seems superfluous and do little to move the story forward. Watching THE VOICES feels at times like working through a list, ticking things off, but each item seems to take us away from the true horror of the story being told here.
If you’re willing to embrace the “crazy” and overlook the more problematic elements of this story of severe mental illness, you’re in for a wild ride full of unexpected twists and turns. At its core, THE VOICES is a powerful tale of two sisters that doesn’t shy away from sensitive subjects, even suicide is on the table. While the ending is somewhat abrupt and undermines much of the sympathy we had developed for the characters, it leaves the viewer with a lot to consider, which, as we suffer through our own experiences of isolation, we have plenty of time to do.