Hollywood take notice: here’s one Thriller that actually Thrills. That’s right, and it doesn’t even come shrink-wrapped with inane accolades like “The Best Thriller since ‘The Silence of the Lambs’“ or “Terrifyingly Frightening, Don’t See It Alone!” No, “Ghost of the Needle” arrives quietly and virtually unannounced, like so many other superb indies these days. Oh well, that’s the system, I guess. Hollywood’s latest, high-calorie schlockers are readily available on fully stocked Blockbuster shelves, while prize-winning independent horror films go unknown and unseen. Sometimes, however, that’s okay. Sometimes, all is (almost) forgiven when “smaller” films come along without an Entertainment Weekly cover spot or savvy ad campaign, and quite thoroughly scare the “Jeepers Creepers” out of you. “Ghost of the Needle” is one such film. What a pleasant surprise, this is a deftly executed and utterly assured example of genre filmmaking at its best. Sure, it’s not exactly revelatory, as we’ve peered inside the mind of an alienated psychopath before, in such films as “The Shining” and “Peeping Tom” and “One Hour Photo”. But never before has this critic felt as lost and abandoned and somehow… implicated in the madness as I did here, in the sinister, imprisoning old factory building in which it all unravels.
Brian Bradley, who also wrote and directed, is quietly exceptional as a fine-art photographer named Jacob. Jacob is but the latest in a long line of disturbed cinematic loners, these being the Norman Bateses, the Sy Parrishes, and the Tom Ripleys of moviedom. These are not necessarily bad men, yet they ostensibly do bad things without obvious rhyme or reason. Jacob lives alone in his make-shift studio in an abandoned factory building. Except for the occasional visit from his formerly abusive, alcoholic father or his greedy agent (as if there’s any other kind!), Jacob is completely and utterly alone. This setup makes it all the more convenient for him to lure attractive, unassuming young women to the studio, where he quickly poisons them and photographs their corpses. (One only wonders how these women could have been so easily lured by such an obviously shady dude. I mean he’s not exactly the smoothest or best looking guy around and yet he’d get more a*s than Colin Farrell, that is, if he wasn’t all psycho and creepy.) You quickly get the feeling that Jacob’s been doing this for some time and has perhaps grown all god-like and lazy in his execution. So much so in fact, that his latest conquest, a young woman named Aimee (Cheri Christian), nearly gets away after pushing him down a flight a stairs, rendering him unconscious. Jacob recovers and stashes Aimee’s body, but for him, it’s only the beginning of a nightmarish descent into the darkness of his own soul. From this moment on, Jacob is haunted by ghoulish visions and eerie sounds, be it of Aimee’s “ghost”, his father, or a private investigator on the trail of one of his former victims.
Are these things real or mere hallucinations? Is Jacob even still alive or dead and in his own private hell? Don’t expect any easy answers here. In its staunch refusal to play by Hollywood’s rules, which require some dumbed-down, lame-a*s exposition, Avenet-Bradley’s film approaches brilliance. Jacob’s nightmare is frighteningly vivid. We are right there with him as he explores every darkened nook and cranny of the factory (a fantastic set-piece, by the way), which may in fact be the tortured prison of his mind. And we want out! Yet only one thing is certain in this existential miasma, there are no outs. The oddly-titled “Ghost of the Needle” is probably not for everyone and especially not for those “thrill” seekers looking for cheap titillation and even cheaper scares. Like Polanski’s best work or Minghella’s under appreciated “The Talented Mr. Ripley”, “GOTN” is deeply disturbing in that makes us feel sympathy, if not understanding, for the monster. This is a great horror film (in the truest sense of the word), a remarkable evocation of dark atmospherics, and a slam-bang effort from Mr. Avenet-Bradley, as writer, director, and even star. Here’s one for the marketing folks, free of charge: Terrifyingly frightening! Don’t see it alone!