Whatever happened to the red-meat, teens-in-trouble, blood-and-breasts American horror film? On the
evidence here, it’s been driven nearly underground. To be clear, The Lost,
which played the festival circuit and got a handful of theatrical showings in
Angeles, isn’t a great film. It’s limited by its
budget, a general flabbiness around the midsection, and genre conventions that
serve as reminders of the film’s status as horror product. But, compared to the
cynical teen-scare flicks and semi-competent J-horror knock-offs clogging multiplex
screens, The Lost feels unhinged and even a little dangerous. Its climax has a
ferocity and evokes a sense of helplessness that’s hard to shake. If the ability to
genuinely disturb is any measure of a horror film’s quality, then The Lost is a
pretty good one.
Based on a novel by horror writer Jack Ketchum, The Lost is all about Ray Pye (Marc Senter), a charismatic but insecure psycho who wears eyeliner and a phony beauty mark on one cheek, and stuffs his cowboy boots with beer cans to add a little bit of height. (It gives him an awkward gait, which he explains with apocryphal stories of derring-do that resulted in shattered bones.) In the film’s very first scene, he’s strolling through a campground when he stumbles upon the reliably nude Erin Brown (neé Misty Mundae), playing a terribly naïve young thing who doesn’t recognize a dangerous misogynist when she sees him. “I thought we were alone up here,” she stammers, then heads off to meet her girlfriend (also naked). Instead of getting the hell out of the woods — or even glancing over her shoulder to make sure she’s not being followed — she and her companion remain in the vicinity overnight.
Long story short: Ray murders the two of them just for the hell of it, implicating his girlfriend Jennifer (Shay Astar) and little buddy Tim (Alex Frost) as de facto accomplices. They stay silent, and Ray avoids arrest. Several years go by; Ray is working for his mother in the family’s motel, and Jennifer and Tim are still his hapless groupies. Ray has a way with the ladies and an easily bruised ego which, given the events of the opening reel, is an obviously lethal combination. Jennifer resents his various flings but lacks the wherewithal to separate from him, which makes her a target. Also in danger are the pretty carhop, the perky youngster sleeping with the retired cop, and the well-built brunette from San Francisco who’s intrigued by Ray’s dark side. Meanwhile, the aging cop who always suspected Ray in the original murders but couldn’t quite implicate him is getting antsy about the case all over again.
There’s a lot going on here, and The Lost spends the vast majority of its two-hour running time completely splatter-free, developing characters and observing their behavior. As a comedown from the thrill-kill that opens the film, it’s an effective tension-generator — when, exactly, will the hammer fall again?
Working Ray’s Johnny Cash fashion sense and emo-kid affectations, Senter chews up the scenery to a degree that often sends his characterization off the rails; the much-bigger-than-life performance doesn’t feel credible, but he’s more believable in his vulnerable moments. (A sex scene that’s aborted after his partner jams a finger up his butt may be a dryly funny indicator of his sexual problems.) But Astar and Frost have a compelling naturalism that makes their lapse in judgment — hooking up with a world-class misanthrope in a dead-end town — verge on tragedy.
In fact, what makes The Lost watchable is the space it gives its women, despite their status as victims. The characters are written as stereotypes, true, but unlike so many slasher knock-offs, The Lost wants you to know something about its casualties, whether it’s the unlucky campers of the film’s opening reel (they’re misconstrued as “lezzies” by Ray, who, like most bullies, is just looking for an excuse); the emotionally messy Jennifer; the young Sally, who shacks up with a dude thrice her age; or the big-city girl who sees a spark in Ray that’s missing from his drab surroundings. The film doesn’t feel hateful or critical toward them — they don’t catch hell from Ray because they’re dumb or careless or just plain horny, but simply because they happened across his path and he has an elephant’s memory. Just because most of them end up dead in an explosively violent climax, along with a host of innocent bystanders, doesn’t mean you’re not meant to be unnerved by their passage.
Screenwriter/director Chris Sivertson (he went on to make the much-derided I Know Who Killed Me with Lindsay Lohan) frames all this in 2.35:1 widescreen, which feels a little cramped for height, but his eye for shot composition is still better than, say, Richard Kelly’s in Southland Tales. The film is generally brightly and simply lit; the most egregious visual missteps are the inserts that look like they were shot on grainy small-gauge stock — more likely they’ve been degraded digitally to look like Super 8 — and betray some pretension on the director’s part. The Lost is most effective at its most straightforward.
The film’s final scene, in which the rage behind Ray’s smiling, almost clownish façade finally comes to the fore, is a veritable bloodbath; almost everyone onscreen takes a bullet in a frenzy of violence. What’s remarkable isn’t the amplitude of the brutality, but its perniciousness, and its status as contagion — the rage most deeply felt in The Lost’s final moments isn’t that of a stone killer, but of good men who find themselves impotent to make things right. By declining to put those final eruptions of violence in perspective, The Lost makes them all the more unsettling. It’s all tension and release — the aftermath is left for the viewer to imagine. B-