Few film genres are as concerned with judgment of their (frequently female) characters’ pasts and/or current sexual transgressions as horror. Whether it’s Michael Myers stabbing babysitters to death for daring to have sex with their boyfriends in John Carpenter’s Halloween or an entire neighborhood’s teenagers being terrorized in their dreams by Freddy Krueger as revenge for their parents’ previous vigilantism towards the local pedophile in Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, horror has traditionally allowed its characters very little in the way of bodily autonomy. When characters in horror movies dare exercise the little of it that they have been granted, they frequently receive violent punishment for doing so.

Held, Chris Lofing and Travis Cluff’s feature-length directorial debut, seems to view itself as fitting very much within this generic lineage, but with a modern, post-#MeToo twist. The story revolves around Henry (Bart Johnson) and Emma (screenwriter Jill Awbrey), an upper-middle-class couple in their mid-to-late-forties whose sleek, ultra-modern, but also isolated and rural rented holiday home has its Internet of Things infrastructure taken over by a malevolent, unseen stranger (Ryan Shoos) whilst implants are drilled into their skulls which allow this stranger to threaten them into complying with his orders. These orders seem to be increasingly predicated on a post-feminist perception that women’s emancipation has diminished romance within marriages and destabilized the 1950s-style nuclear family as a societal institution.

Though this film is, for the most part, schlocky and undistinguished, there are several aspects that are genuinely well-executed. The stranger’s initial command to the couple over the phone to “obey us” is performed by Shoos in a shocking manner, and the sudden vibrations of a phone actually made me jump, as did the intrusion of electric white noise that heralded the second scene depicting the implants’ insertions. These sorts of quiet-quiet-bang scares are the sort of routine, generic shocks that Held pulls off fairly well.

The music in the aforementioned “obey us” scene is heavy-handed and partially overpowers Shoos’ delivery of his dialogue. Awbrey (who is making her feature-length acting debut here) overacts Emma’s initial discovery of the implant, and when we finally get a relatively clear view of the antagonist, he cuts a ridiculous, unintentionally comical figure. The main problem with the film, though, is that it positions itself front-and-center in its publicity as being a feminist story about a woman’s fight for sexual independence from men (Cluff describes it optimistically as “the Get Out of the #MeToo movement” in the press release), meaning that what’s ostensibly intended as a major twist moment around two-thirds of the way through will be totally unsurprising to any audience member in possession of this knowledge. A director wanting moments like these to come as unexpected jolts would do well to stay silent on the film’s overarching themes in pre-release publicity.

Ultimately, Held is a moderately entertaining potboiler that has its fair share of shocks, which is a crucial quality in a horror movie. Unfortunately, too many of its elements are fumbled and poorly executed (including, crucially, its big reveal) for it to elevate itself above the status of diverting, mildly enjoyable B-movie horror. It is clearly a film that wishes to impart a message to its audience but it does so very heavy-handedly and a lighter touch would have been welcome.

A moderately entertaining potboiler that has its fair share of shocking moments, but too many of its elements are fumbled and poorly executed.
58 %
Mildly enjoyable horror
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