Recent years have seen no shortage of films, horror or otherwise, tackling toxic masculinity and the threat it poses towards women. The issues still remain in the real world, so the issue remains on film, and the latest genre effort to tackle it does so with an eye for practical effects, a palpable sense of Cronenbergian dread, and the reality of a low budget. Rot starts with a tenuous relationship but builds into a creepy frenzy as the places and people around them grow increasingly uncertain and unsettling.
Madison (Kris Alexandria) and Jesse (Johnny Kostrey) are growing apart even if neither of them quite know it. She’s a teacher’s assistant for a professor who sees big things in her future and just one interview away from securing a major opportunity, but while Jesse supports her ambition and accomplishments she’s less enamored by his lack of either. Their situation worsens, though, when an incident at his own job leaves something inhuman inside him. Minor jealousies he’d been harboring now blossom alongside his rage, and when she breaks things off he takes it very, very poorly. And his rage is spreading.
Writer/director/editor Andrew Merrill paints a frightening picture with his feature debut, but while murders, jump scares, and a possessed mob populate Rot its heart is the toxicity of possessive, entitled men that beats at its ugly core. The film never pushes the subtext to the forefront, but it’s no less effective of a commentary on one of society’s most pervasive ills, Still, the more visceral, unreal horror is the focus here, and Merrill squeezes some unnerving sequences from the premise building towards a memorably explicit ending.
While Madison and Johnny are the central couple other characters come into play including their friend Aaron (Johnny Uhorchuk) and his new sweetheart Nora (Sara Young Chandler), and they’re far from mere fodder. Aaron even goes so far as to shift from beer bro to hero, and it’s a refreshing change of pace from what the character first appears to be. It’s one of a few story beats that go against genre expectations here, and that’s all part of what lends the film a sense of uncertainty with its characters and story.
The presence inside Jesse moved through some elderly folks first, and we see the most recent host talking to it, apologizing for being weak, and promising a stronger body next time — that body is found in Jesse, and it’s there where “he” takes hold while infecting others in his vicinity. Is it a virus? A devil? An alien entity? The specifics are less important than the execution, and on that front Merrill does great work with a handful of scenes showing attacks by both individuals and groups. It reminds favorably of David Cronenberg’s Shivers (1975) as these newly afflicted take on a creepy, cult-like expression as they encroach and attack.
Performances are a bit of a mixed bag at times, and while none of them knock viewers out of the film a few feel somewhat shaky. The production design and look of the film fare better with locations that feel real and lived in including a sequence in the assisted living facility after hours that sees the locale taken well advantage of with a foot chase and an increasing sense of terror. The budget keeps things relatively small, but it works to unnerve and isolate all the same as we move between increasingly unsecured locales. There’s a touch of Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) on display too as friends and acquaintances fall prey to this “other” that’s uniting them for a sinister purpose. A sequence at Aaron’s birthday party is especially chilling as he realizes that most of the people there are strangers. It’s an unnerving watch at times, and that’s something not enough horror films manage.
Rot‘s indie feel might scare some viewers off, but horror fans should stick with it for its creepy set-pieces, weighty themes, and a finale that won’t be forgotten anytime soon. It’s a big one.
Rot screened at San Francisco’s Another Hole in the Head Film Festival 2019.