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Astral (Movie Review)

Astral (Movie Review)
6 10

PLOT: Years after his mother’s suicide, university student Alex (Frank Dillane) attempt to contact her spirit through astral projection. Unfortunately, Alex awakens something far more sinister in the process.

REVIEW: Following a half-decade spent honing his filmmaking craft across a small handful of shorts and a few TV episodes, British writer/director Chris Mul has cause to celebrate the handsome returns of his solid feature film debut ASTRAL (GET IT HERE) – a tautly tethered, disquietingly measured, under-resourced but overachieving little thriller that relies far less on gory, gaudy SFX or cheap exploitative horror tropes and much more on its inherently interesting idea, adroitly penned screenplay, and credibly lived-in performances. Indeed, for a movie shot in just 12 days in a mere two locations, it is nothing short of astounding how competently constructed ASTRAL has proved to be. Alas, either resulting from a case of false advertising, or worse, a bald aping of similar-themed movies like THE NIGHTMARE and DEAD AWAKE, or even perhaps due to the inability to visually represent astral projection itself, the movie ultimately sloughs away from its titular theme in favor of exploring sleep paralysis instead. The tradeoff of originality for familiarity certainly hurts its overall standing, but for an 80 minute first-time feature fashioned on a shoestring, ASTRAL certainly rises slightly above the rest!

The film opens with a staidly upsetting suicide scene that is lit and lensed exquisitely by Mul and sets the austere tone for things to come. Joel (Darwin Shaw) and Claire Harmann (Catherine Steadman) live in a small flat with their single son, Alex (Dillane). While asleep around the witching hour, Claire calmly climbs the stairs, grabs bed-sheet and proceeds to hang herself without explanation. It’s a superb opener. Cut to the present, where we find Alex all grown up with grungy hair and a soporific demeanor, attending a posh English university. Alex knows his mother is dead, but is unaware that she took her own life and why. In his science class, Professor Powell (Trevor White) gives a lecture about human consciousness and out of body experiences. He explains many methods of achieving such are possible, including psychedelic drugs, near death experiences, or more extremely, astral projection. Alex takes an instant shine to the latter option, hitting the library for research books on the matter. His budding girlfriend Alyssa (Vanessa Grasse) shows her concern, while his classmates Jordan (Damson Idris), Ben (Ned Porteous) and Karina (Jennifer Brooke) tease him about the idea. Soon, Alex begins a series of astral projection trials alone in his bedroom. With little to show for at first, Alex is soon victimized by an increasing skein of supernatural sightings.

Where ASTRAL rises to its absolute apogee is in its unique idea, captivating screenplay that explores said idea, and the convincing lead performances to sell the idea in full. The notion of astral projection is an intrinsically fascinating one, made all the more gripping by its historic cinematic underrepresentation. The first half of the movie does a wonderful job of explaining the phenomenon through the learned eyes of Alex, parsing bits and pieces of info here and there that, while mysterious in the moment, in the end hook us with the knowledge of its folkloric mythology. The problem is that we never actually see the visual depiction of astral projection. Alex’s spirit is never seen exiting the body and levitating above, which I can only assume is a hamstrung byproduct of having such little time and money at Mul’s disposal. This undoubtedly smarts, as the movie will likely be castigated for either failing to live up to its promise, or deliberately advertising a false bill of goods. Thankfully, when the movie makes it’s not so subtle transition from astral projection to sleep paralysis, the performance by Dillane largely makes you forgive if not forget that the movie tends to lose its thematic focus.

In fact, Dillane reportedly agreed to star in the film when the screenplay was still in its nascent stage, primarily due to his own harrowing past with sleep paralysis. Therefore, this is well tilled territory for Dillane in real life, which makes for an utterly authentic performance that comes across without a false note onscreen. Even when the movie devolves into a derivative sleep paralysis thriller in the end, where the evilest of incantations and incarnations come in the form of “shadow people,” misty black silhouettes that appear in the corners, Dillane still manages to keep the action anchored and the movie grounded with a much needed veracity. So too does the small supporting cast of capable young British tyros, who understand how to sell even the most stilted lines of dialogue. English actors have always been the cream of the crop, and ASTRAL proves you can cast a minor-movie shot in 12 days on two locations and still achieve a level of verity that can overcome some of the budgetary hindrances. Vanessa Grasse (LEATHERFACE, OPEN 24 HOURS) in specific stands out and shines on across from Dillane, offering an emotional nexus to which the audience can cling.

If for no other reason than learning a bit more about astral projection, a genuinely compelling and highly unnerving subject, one should come away with great alacrity to see what Chris Mul and his brotherly co-writer Michael Mul get up to in the future. With even the scantest of resources, the brothers Mul have proven they can conceive a compelling topic, adeptly turn the conceit into a well written the screenplay, and train their eye to cast the right actors to credibly portray the characters in said screenplay. If they repeat the feat with a larger amount of time and money, great things are sure to abound for these guys. As for ASTRAL, the strengths listed above more or less atone for the tangential diversion away from astral projection and toward sleep paralysis, even when said shift sacrifices enthralling originality for disappointing familiarity. Still, in terms of its sub-generic kinship, all things factored, ASTRAL soars slightly over THE NIGHTMARE and DEAD AWAKE. ASTRAL opens this Friday!

Source: AITH

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