(DARK STAR PICTURES/YELLOW VEIL PICTURES/THIRTEENTH FLOOR PICTURES/ONE WORLD ENTERTAINMENT(96 minutes; Unrated); 2023)
I have a particular fondness for weird and unpredictable movies. So many films these days are by-the-book entries in their respective genres, and anything in the horror/suspense world is more likely than not to give the viewers what they want, more or less. DAUGHTER, a memorable little indie project from writer/director Corey Deshon, is a well-made offering that grabbed my attention right away. It starts with two masked individuals chasing a terrified girl through a bleak landscape, and I think one of the dudes mutters something to the other, after their terrible act, like “Remember, you were responsible for this.” But whether I got that quote right or not, we are soon privy to the terror experienced by a different girl played by Vivien Ngo, as she is being menaced, oddly in a “respectful” manner, by “Father’ (Casper van Dien, best known from STARSHIP TROOPERS, in a career-best performance here). Father is explaining to the girl that she is now part of his family, that she will be addressed as the titular “Daughter,” and that she is badly needed as a companion for “Brother,” played by Ian Alexander. And there is a “Mother” around also, Elyse Dinh. Both the women here are Vietnamese, and this is never explained, though they do use the language to speak to each other, presumably to keep “Father” from understanding their conversations. We have our setup: A cult-like family who think that the “outside” is “poison,” and that safety can only be counted on inside, are fixed on having the right daughter to complete their family, and to bring happiness to their son. Something really weird is going on, and the movie hangs on our suspense about what in hell is happening.
It is worth mentioning the score here, as I believe that music can have a huge role in one’s response to a film. This one was done by David Strother, a composer I don’t know, and it’s a doozy. All tense strings (likely cello and violin/viola) which are often discordant and almost always insistent, but very evocative. They tell us rather straightforwardly that something is really OFF in this scenario, and I think the music is very effective. Deshon made a good choice in utilizing this composer.
It was also a curious and very successful choice to put van Dien in the lead. We’ve seen this actor as an energetic and rather heroic type in past films, and here he is unhinged, spooked (in that way so common to overwrought cult leaders) and singularly set on his one dysfunctional goal: To maintain the semblance of a family and overcome any hesitation on the part of the girl(s) he kidnaps. “This is going to be home for a while,” he tells the scared Daughter. “You have to understand that. You’re part of a family now… I can’t do this without you.” We’ve all read sick news stories about cult kidnappings before, so the grim resonance of this scenario is vividly real. Ngo shows initial reticence and fear, but gradually we see her start to become a bit calculating, and the actress does a credible job starting to “adapt.” She slowly starts to become agreeable, though she is wacked in the face by Father wielding a rolled-up newspaper at one point. She is gingerly trying to push the limits a bit. And while she starts playing with the “Brother,” first at a board game he seems to fancy and then via a “storytelling exercise” that she has to persuade him to engage in (it soon leads to a weird bit of theatricality), Father is suspicious throughout, hovering never far away and making sure both of the “siblings” (as well as we the audience) are kept on edge. He reads periodically from a tattered book (it could be the Bible or some other culty guidebook), and he keeps saying things like “the diseases out there don’t play by the rules!” and issuing warnings like “Don’t you poison that boy!” and “Don’t ruin everything.” The youngster, Ian Alexander, has one of the difficult challenges here: How to show his innocent enthusiasm for “fun” and bonding with his new sibling, and his absolute adherence to Father’s wishes, while clearly getting rattled when something doesn’t seem right. Alexander has a crucial – and a bit inscrutable – role here and he fulfills it well.
But the film mostly belongs to Casper van Dien. He is entirely believable, quite scary, and a million miles away from his heroic part in STARSHIP TROOPERS. He wears monastic plain clothes (they all do), is clearly disturbed about what he perceives as the sick reality of the outside world, and shows how quickly he might go OFF, and hurt you. He makes it clear early on that if he thinks you DESERVE to be hurt, you WILL be. That keeps you guessing all the way to the end.
It’s remarkable that director Strother keeps sex totally out of the picture here… the reality of most cults I have ever read about is that part of the MO when kidnapping women is to prey on them sexually. That is NOT part of this particular story. Also a surprise was the ending, which I won’t give away. Some things are left hanging, and you’re left knowing mostly, as one of the captioned chapter titles tell us, that you’ve seen “A Story About Sick People.” I found this film scarily resonant and relevant. We live in a world these days where all kinds of predatory creeps, whether motivated by religion or not, force or pressure people to do the things the sickos want, sometimes having to give up their old lives. DAUGHTER does not make everything clear about the reality we are witnessing, and each of the characters ends up representing a separate aspect of life in a dysfunctional (potentially dystopian?) small-scale system. It’s unsettling, unnerving and sometimes quite disturbing. But the decision-making process that went into the production of this offbeat gem of a film was thoughtful and deliberate, and it pays off. Kudos to the director and the acting foursome for serving up something that you’re not likely to forget, and avoiding almost all the clichés of this particular cinematic milieu.
(DAUGHTER premieres in theaters and On Demand on February 10, 2023, with a DVD release scheduled for May 9.)