Horror News

Presence Review – Steven Soderbergh’s Thrilling Haunter

Unsane director Steven Soderbergh reunites with Kimi screenwriter David Koepp (Stir of Echoes) to give an innovative new spin on the quintessential ghost story. Presence frames its haunted events entirely from the perspective of its ghost. From the opening frame until the end credits, audiences see the thrilling story unfold through chilling narrative twists via Soderbergh’s experimentation with form and technique. Using the camera’s gaze as the ghost’s observing eyes isn’t the only trick up Soderbergh and Koepp’s sleeves, ensuring this exciting shakeup of the haunted house keeps you guessing.

The opening moments introduce the single location, an affluent suburban home just recently on the market, through tracking camerawork that captures the feel of a ghost peering around its haunt. It quickly navigates the halls and rooms, giving a quick overview of the layout as it seeks out a new arrival in the form of a frazzled real estate agent (Julia Fox). Mere minutes after, she greets the family there to look at the new home on the market, introducing the central characters that come with ghosts of their own long before they realize their new home is already occupied by an otherworldly presence.

It’s here where Presence instantly lures you in; the ghost begins as a mere observer with no dirty secret or flaw gone unnoticed. Through the ghost’s eyes, we watch and start to piece together the dysfunction within the foursome. Rebecca (Lucy Liu) is the tough-as-nails mom with some shady parenting and work ethics, and her prized son Tyler (Eddy Maday) seems sure to follow in mom’s footsteps. Dad Chris (Chris Sullivan) is a tender-hearted parent at wits end on how to combat the callousness of his wife and son while deeply concerned about his depressed daughter Chloe (Calliana Lang). That Chloe just lost her best friend Nadia to a drug overdose, the second girl in their school to die this way, leaves Chloe more susceptible to the supernatural.

As the ghost is drawn to Chloe, Presence evolves. The entity becomes more than a voyeur; it becomes a realized character the more it’s drawn into Chloe’s sorrow. Soderbergh, working as cinematographer under pseudonym Peter Andrews, wields the camera in breathtaking ways that infuse the incorporeal character with personality. Soderbergh’s usual tracking shots follow the family’s inner turmoil, but the filmmaker plays with technique and form to capture its emotions. Through the camera, it’s clear when the ghost is angry, or upset, or franticly worried over Chloe. It’s the innovative pull of the ghost’s perspective that fully captivates and adds a layer of unpredictability.

While that ultimately makes this ghost of the not-scary variety, Soderbergh has plenty of surprises in store that ensure there are plenty of gasp-worthy moments and palpable dread. Koepp and Soderbergh touch on common haunted house tropes, like the arrival of a psychic to help them navigate their ghostly occupant, but it’s in the way they subvert to work around these tropes where Presence shines. The presence itself may not be something to fear, but that doesn’t mean Presence lacks any intensity or horror. The moody story builds into a thrilling finale that devastates.

Presence gives a contemporary, innovative new spin on the haunted house format that bypasses the well-trodden path to instead create scares of a different nature. Scares that could only work once its voyeuristic ghost, and the audience by proxy, has become entangled in the engaging and messy lives of a family foursome. Liu, Maday, Sullivan, and Lang fearlessly dig into their flawed roles and keep us invested in their turbulent lives, even if some of their discardable subplots are more to flesh out their personalities than story. Their performances prove just as vital as Soderbergh’s personality-imbuing camerawork. Combined with Koepp’s twisty script, Presence pulls you in, terrifies you, then leaves your heart on the floor. This ghost story doesn’t scare in the conventional sense, but it’s an innovative and grim nail-biter with more on its mind than the logline suggests.

Presence made its World Premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.

4 out of 5 skulls

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