ICYMI – HALLOWEEN EDITION: Coherence (2013)
The current state of film, pandemic aside, seems to find studios constantly trying to follow popular trends and re-booting past successes will endless money in pursuit of box office domination. Used to be that the heartbeat of cinema pulsated with passionate filmmakers looking to tell stories and connect with audiences. Nowadays, films are merely overproduced mechanisms with interchangeable parts wherein often the release date is announced before principal photography even begins. And a completed screenplay is an afterthought.
With this in mind, I recommend 2013’s Coherence. Here is a film that finds a way to transform a low budget into a surprisingly successful sci-fi chiller built on mood and ideas. It’s a reminder that sometimes the best films are built on simple concepts with just right amount of nuance and creativity. Supposedly the film was made for $50,000. I’m guessing a more traditional, robust budget would have seen a vanishing of said nuance and creativity.
Set on a seemingly inconsequential night in suburban Los Angeles, the film sets the stage for an innocuous dinner party among friends. If you had no prior knowledge of the film, you might think you’ve stumbled upon a wannabe pseudo intellectual indie flick. What ensues is an eerie modern version of The Outer Limits with maybe just a hint of Community’s “Remedial Chaos Theory” episode.
As the film begins, we see Emily (Emily Baldoni) en route to a gathering when she notices that her cell phone is smashed. Once she arrives at Mike (Nicholas Brendon) and Lee’s (filmmaker Lorene Scafaria), we get a decent lay of the land. We meet Beth (Elizabeth Gracen), who is bit “New Agey” with her nutritional oil with just a drop of Ketamine, as well as Emily’s boyfriend, Kevin (Maury Sterling). Emily has cold feet about joining him on a four-month business trip. Beth’s husband, Hugh (Hugo Armstrong) arrives but the real drama is saved for the arrival of Amir (Alex Manugian) and Laurie (Lauren Maher). Turns out Laurie used to date to date Kevin. This will not be the last mention of incestuous behavior in this close-knit group.
After some easy-going and forgettable pleasantries, dinner begins. You may enjoy Nicholas Brendon’s referencing of work on Roswell, as a nod to his Buffy the Vampire Slayer past. Then Hugh, notices that his phone is also smashed like Emily’s. Conversation turns to a comet that is passing above as they speak, and the power goes out. After a scramble for candles, the guests notice that every house in the neighborhood is equally electricity-challenged. Is this connected to comet? I wonder...
I’d rather not give too much away, though I do wonder if Emily’s pre-blackout comet story is a dead giveaway. The remainder of the film involves these characters questioning their own identities and sanity, as well as the significance of the house two blocks away that looks very familiar. There is also the use of a lock box with pictures and unexplained numbers. But mostly, Coherence is an exercise in building suspense.
Writer-Director James Ward Byrkit may tip his hand at times but he stills finds a way to slowly rachet up the tension. The low budget shows with the film’s unpolished look and yet, that makes the film even more effective. Add in dialogue that feels improvised and the viewer is transformed into a production that feels weirdly realistic. These characters will organically unwind before our eyes and it is hard to not imagine are own inner demons unleashed in a similar predicament.
The final ten minutes seem to have viewers split. My wife, in particular, said it’s when the film lost her. For me, I found it truly nightmarish as we watch a character descend into a never-ending spiral of tragedy. Ending aside, it’s hard to not respect the craft and execution of Coherence. I enjoyed the film for what it does but more importantly how it does it. It’s a reminder that while big budgets will always buy stars and spectacle, it does not guarantee imagination nor ingenuity.