SUSPENDED ANIMATION (2001)

Editor’s Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on October 31, 2003, and we’re proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.


It’s easy to point out the moment where Suspended Animation loses its creepy hold on the emotions and just goes berserk. The first couple of reels follow movie animator Tom Kempton (Alex McArthur) as he joins a couple of buddies for a snowmobiling vacation in remote, wintry woods. When Tom heads off on his own and his vehicle breaks down, he seeks help at a house occupied by middle-aged sisters Vanessa (Laura Esterman) and Ann (Sage Allen). At first appearing sympathetic, the duo soon reveal themselves to be off the deep end and take Tom prisoner, taunting him with evidence of the fates of other men who have fallen into their clutches and promises that he’s going to join them.

Up to this point, director John Hancock (working from a script by his wife Dorothy Tristan) creates a sense of isolated rural fear akin to his 1971 cult classic Let’s Scare Jessica to Death. Allen and Esterman’s performances may suggest variations on Kathy Bates in Misery and Amanda Plummer in half the films she’s made respectively, but the actresses (Allen especially) bring distinctive brands of mania to their performances. Their terrorization of Tom and his attempts to wangle his way out of the situation create a solid sense of unease and successfully get under the viewer’s skin.

Then, at about the half-hour mark (and it’s not really giving too much away to reveal this), Tom’s buddies show up and rescue him, leading to a snowmobile chase that seems more appropriate to a James Bond film than the modest chiller Hancock and Tristan had previously been attempting. As if that wasn’t enough, they top the sequence off with an avalanche setpiece that’s so wildly out of scale with what has come before that it sends the movie right off the tracks. High concepts combining the elements of earlier hits may be all the rage in filmmaking right now, but “Misery meets XXX” just doesn’t work, and Suspended Animation never recovers.

As it turns out, Tom’s imprisonment and torture is just a setup for the meat of the movie, which focuses on how he deals with the trauma. He decides to exorcise the demons of Ann and Vanessa by making them the centerpiece villains of an animated feature, which suggests that either he’s capable of creating a full-length cartoon on his own, or a studio is willing to bankroll a filmmaker’s multimillion-dollar therapy-through-art. In any case, Tom’s movie isn’t the story’s focal point either; rather, it’s concerned mostly with his relationship with Clara (Maria Cina), whom Tom discovers is the daughter of one of his captors. Put up for adoption at a young age, Clara has no idea of her heritage; she’s more concerned with taking care of her teenaged son Sandor (Fred Meyers), who is showing every indication of being just as deranged as his grandmother and her sister.

Hancock and Tristan are on to something here—the way madness is passed down through the generations, and whether a brutal personal history can be prevented from repeating itself. Yet even given Suspended Animation’s distended 114-minute running time, the duo don’t explore the idea with much depth; Sandor possessing the same dementia as Ann and Vanessa comes off more as coincidence than inevitability. While his direction is technically tight and efficient (with hi-def 24p videography by Misha Suslov that looks as filmlike as any tape-to-celluloid transfer I’ve seen), Hancock’s pace flags, and his approach is too literal, making the story’s unusual turns seem overstated when they might have benefitted from a more off-kilter filmmaking style. In this context, the more extreme/gross-out moments (a severed penis in a jar, Sandor popping and eating a zit) play more as desperately vulgar than legitimately unsettling.

But the final, very long nail in this movie’s coffin is the climactic sequence, which hinges on a predictable plot twist and is rife with histrionics and unbelievable actions on the part of its characters. For a movie that concerns itself with human behavior, Suspended Animation loses its grasp of how people might realistically react to a crisis situation. It’s a shame, because Hancock and Tristan started out with the right idea of creating a modern American Gothic of warped family values. What they’ve wound up with, unfortunately, is a movie as dysfunctional as most of its characters.

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