The vaults of streaming horror are being infiltrated by high-quality indies and it is cause for concern.
With cinemas serving up hot horror garbage like Brahms: The Boy 2, The Turning, The Grudge and Fantasy Island, it’s suddenly become harder to find a reliably crap horror movie on streaming. Netflix, which was just recently subjecting us to terrible fright flicks like The Cloverfield Paradox and The Haunting on Fraternity Row, disappoints once again with J.D. Dillard’s island-set chiller Sweetheart.
A cross between a great season one episode of “Lost,” The Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Shallows, Sweetheart follows Jenn (Kiersey Clemons), a young woman whose Fijian sailing trip goes awry. She ends up castaway on a seemingly abandoned island, left with few resources outside of some lost items that signal she isn’t the first loner to wash ashore. Her isolation leads to a few Cast Away-like stretches of Jenn silently teaching herself island survival, and the eminently watchable Clemons makes even these non-scary scenes gripping and necessary in establishing her character’s resourcefulness. Notably, she’s not a soldier or nautical expert, so it’s extra satisfying to observe her small victories.
Sweetheart goes from Cast Away to Predator in the blink of an eye, and the monster stalking her is surprising, creepy and thrifty, allowing Sweetheart to succeed visually on what appears to be a less-than-sizable budget. Shot in Fiji and lensed by Australian cinematographer Stefan Duscio, the film features atmospheric visuals that are alternately lush and desolate, signaling Jenn’s isolation but also the mystery of the island jungle.
The film eventually introduces a couple of other characters, but this is Clemons’ show and she carries it with believable physicality and the undefinable something that makes you root for a character you barely know. Given that we rarely see her interact with any other human characters, the fact that we root so strongly for Jenn is a testament to Clemons’ strong performance and a taut script by Dillard, Alex Hyner and Alex Theurer.
While Sweetheart doesn’t get much wrong, there is room here for it to do more right. It’s zippy at 82 minutes, but given the exciting creature design it would have been great to see Dillard and company establish more mythology around the monster and the island itself. And though Jenn’s lack of backstory allows us to get behind her in a kind of everywoman way, Clemons makes her compelling enough that she certainly could have been given more to carry.
One of the more impressive elements of Sweetheart is that it doesn’t try too hard to distinguish itself despite wearing a number of its influences on its sleeve. It evokes all of the aforementioned titles as well as Alien, The Shape of Water and a number of others, but Dillard maintains a focus on streamlined, exciting storytelling rather than succumbing to pressure to carve out some kind of unique artistic vision. As a result, Sweetheart is consistently and rather purely entertaining.
The vaults of streaming horror are being infiltrated by high-quality indies and it is cause for concern. As sad as it has been to see so many derivative horror clunkers onscreen this year, the increasing viability of streaming platforms as a means of release for low-to-mid-budgeted films means that films like Sweetheart are able to sneak in and surprise us. I certainly wouldn’t be disappointed to accidentally find a Sweetheart 2 on my Netflix queue sometime in the near future.