Quite A Conundrum is a film that exists in many genres all at once. It is a deconstructionist horror film, a wrenching emotional drama, a gross-out subversive comedy and a critique of the fame-obsessed culture among twenty-somethings grasping at adult life from just beyond the velvet rope of stilted social-media-as-life shallowness. It is a balancing act that works nearly throughout the film: transitioning from an unpleasant start off to a comfortable/seen-it-100-times-before friend-y intro to a series of turns of tone and direction such that you’re quite unsure what you’re being led into and more so what edges might be stepped over.
The introduction to our two main leads, Mimi (Sasha Ramos) and Tabitha (total knockout Erin Cline) is an odd one. We first meet Mimi in a less-than-flattering bedroom situation with a man over twice her age (and probably three times her size) that turns spitting mean at its conclusion, mostly for her part. We then transition from that awkwardness to Mimi’s ‘bestie’ Tabitha at Mimi’s parents’ house and the slightly grating way in which the two of them interact. It is if they must always reference a joke within a joke within a reference in under 140 verbal characters or less with a healthy sprinkle of ghetto-slang for good measure. It is cloying, made ever more obvious by the way in which Mimi’s younger sister Kylene (Emily Rogers) surveys the situation with disdainful quips fired across the bows of these two self-involved women.
It is this examination of the two leads within the film that gives us the first clue as to where we might be going. Kylene sees these two women as they really are, shallow and self-involved and clueless. Kylene, for her part, has self-identity problems in her own young life to contend with in the form of a profoundly uncomfortable relationship with her goofy boyfriend Harris and his hyper-religious mother Thelma (played beautifully by Catherine Trail). You almost immediately know something is up there. Introduce Tabitha’s boyfriend Sean (or rather, boyfriend of the moment) and his casual friend Dutch showing up at the house for a party and you have the makings of a booze-soaked powder keg of insecurities waiting to boil over.
But then, the foot is taken off the throttle momentarily and the ridiculousness of each of these characters’ shortcomings takes a backseat to some good old-fashioned fun. Again, the misdirection approach is handled really well as we’re given time to relax but at the same time given more than a couple of reasons to not let our guard down. Whether it is the immediate power drinking by all involved or the guarded way in which Dutch interacts with his new friends or the way in which Tabitha flirts across the backyard pool with poor young Harris, all twisted up with hormonal overload, it all feels unsettled and rife for something bad to happen. We’ve all seen a hundred ‘kids having fun at a party’ setups that give way to a bunch of death from something unseen attacking with abandon. It is expected and is a known quantity in horror films and your only hope is that the writer is clever enough to not delve too obviously into everything done so many times before.
Thankfully, blessedly this build-up of interpersonal tension breaks open in a way that makes total sense in terms of the plot but feels original and not over-thought. From this point forward (let’s call it pre-pool and post-pool) things get dark and unexpected and ultimately emotional in a number of ways. When you present a group of people like this with a severe situation, you don’t expect them to man up as much as you expect them to wilt. To freak out. To crumble under the weight. So often in horror films, you’re forced to believe that a character you’ve known only to be a shallow twit has the intestinal fortitude to be a take-no-prisoners leader at the drop of a hat. Phillips doesn’t make that bet and instead shows breakdown in these people that is authentic and relatable. One scene post-pool pushes one character to a breaking point that is both sad and ugly at the same time and they react in-kind. Another scene dredges up emotional backlog for another character that would and should render someone utterly useless and defenseless in the face of evil. And it does. There are no unsupported, under-written heroes here.
Further, the dark turn and evil, violent threat doesn’t make a lot of sense. The reasoning, the genesis of it does not feel airtight and actually feels far from thought out. This is not a bad thing and is a refreshing change to the constant open-and-shut feeling that many a ‘reveal’ in horror films seem to have. This leads to a grounding in reality that I wish more horror movies had. The real weight of loss of life, the real emotional breakdown in the face of death seems like an afterthought more often than not in horror. In Quite A Conundrum however, death means something and I would argue means more than the supposed ‘grand meaning’ that caused it in the first place. Human beings, in the end, must populate these stories and in this film, the shallow and the stupid and the crude and the unseemly wash away to reveal a true horror grounded in reality.
I’m being vague for a reason here. This film works best when you don’t know the framework by which it’ll all come unglued. The film will be released (as I understand) next February and I suggest that if given a chance to see it, go in blind. The film is not without low-budget flaws but taken as a whole completed idea, Quite A Conundrum is a strong genre film that succeeds where you really want it to and avoids well-traveled paths you’d just assume avoid.
The director of Quite A Conundrum, Thomas Phillips, and I are old friends. We went to undergraduate school together and worked on various stage productions among many less scholarly pursuits. Tom is a professional in the film industry and so for this, I’ll treat him like a professional in terms of writing a review. However, it would be less than honest to not note our friendship here and the care and regard I have for him on a personal level.