“24 EXPOSURES” (Movie Review)
After his impressive and darkly comic horror debut with a segment of V/H/S, many horror lovers wondered when mumblecore auteur and occasional genre actor Joe Swanberg would tackle feature-length horror filmmaking. With his bent toward atmospheric, character-driven storytelling and associations with genre filmmakers like Adam Wingard and Ti West, it was only a matter of time before Swanberg found a horror story of his own to tell—yet fans of his V/H/S piece may be surprised that Swanberg opted out of startling, high-concept scares for the slow-burning dread of 24 EXPOSURES.
With dialogue reminiscent of Wingard’s A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE, 24 EXPOSURES (in select theaters and on VOD January 24 from IFC Films) is a throwback to the made-for-premium-cable erotic thrillers prevalent during early-hours television in the 1990s. However, it’s rarely as hokey or self-important as those flicks tended to be, as Swanberg grounds the film with levity while still managing to build palpable tension. The basic premise is fairly simple, following the unlikely friendship between depressed cop Michael and lovelorn erotic photographer Billy after several models wind up dead, while weaving in several subplots—one focusing on the photographer’s problematic relationship—all used expertly to set up motives for each character to be the potential killer.
Even though Swanberg restrains himself as a storyteller with 24 EXPOSURES, his technical work as a director is impressive and unconventional. Many of the non-dialogue-driven sequences are conveyed in uninterrupted, roaming long takes, and much of the movie is shot with gorgeous minimalism by director of photography Adam Pinney. Swanberg’s script fits his improvisation-heavy mumblecore aesthetics, allowing for more naturalistic deliveries even if it also subverts conventional genre pacing. However, unconventionality is an approach Swanberg thrives in, especially considering the terrific, nostalgic score by Jasper Lee.
Another success of 24 EXPOSURES lies in Swanberg’s casting of friends and colleagues, many with genre experience. Longtime collaborators Simon Barrett and Wingard star as Michael and Billy, respectively, and perform with humble subtlety, their natural chemistry clicking with their characterizations of these morally complex characters. Helen Rogers, from Swanberg’s V/H/S story, is quite good as the charming and beautiful object of Billy’s affection, and Sophia Takal (with whom Swanberg starred in West’s entry in that anthology) also does a great, nuanced job as one of Billy’s socially offbeat models. However, the show is almost completely stolen by Caroline White as Billy’s emotionally scorned girlfriend, who—aside from an excellent third-act cameo I won’t ruin here—gives the film its most riveting and complex moments.
Even though its suspense lies mostly in the moments between fascinating mundanity, 24 EXPOSURES is still a hypnotic and enjoyable hypersexual murder mystery. It’s certainly not for every horror fan, as the red stuff comes second to slowly unfolding tension and character interaction. But when the film enters genre territory, it’s an excellent, voyeuristic genre experience unlike many even in the independent horror landscape. Personally, this writer can’t wait until Swanberg jumps headfirst into the creature-laden madness his V/H/S short promised, but 24 EXPOSURES is a genre thriller with a quiet charm that Swanberg can proudly call his first fright flick.