As corny as it may sound, the Boston Underground Film Festival feels like home.
Longtime readers of the Hassle will know that we hold a special place for the festival, known as BUFF to its regulars. My own affection for BUFF long predates my career as a writer; as a psychotronically-inclined film student, I would inevitably find myself drawn to at least one screening from the festival’s slate (I can fondly recall seeing Lucky McKee and Angela Bettis introduce the premiere of Roman, their little-seen follow-up to their cult classic May, or a hilariously intoxicated Lloyd Kaufman introduce an anniversary screening of Tromeo and Juliet). When I took over as film editor for the Hassle, the first thing I knew I wanted to do was to organize coverage of BUFF as extensive as that of any of the national festivals (this year will be no exception– watch this space in the coming days!). I’ve covered bigger festivals since, but BUFF remains special, both for its reliably outre programming and for its cheerful, welcoming vibe. Each year, as I say hi to the familiar faces and take my seat for opening night, I find myself overcome with a warm feeling: this is where I belong.
It also helps that BUFF’s opening night selections are immaculately curated (see last year’s You Won’t Be Alone, or the aborted 2020 lineup’s Dinner in America). This year saw the world premiere of The Unheard, the new mindbending thriller from The Beach House director Jeffrey A. Brown. Like that film, The Unheard is a superb slice of all-enveloping dread, and a perfect prelude to the disorienting nights ahead.
Lachlan Watson plays Chloe, a young woman* rendered Deaf following a childhood bout of meningitis. Hoping to restore her hearing (“I can remember sounds– they’re still inside me,” she explains), Chloe signs on for an experimental treatment at Mass Eye and Ear, commuting from her family’s long-empty summer home in Wellfleet (between this and The Beach House, Brown seems to be making his name as the King of Cape Cod Horror). Following a few days of indeterminate results, Chloe experienced a breakthrough: her hearing, previously severely damaged, is suddenly as clear as a bell. At first, Chloe is understandably ecstatic, relishing in the sounds most folks take for granted– the rush of water in the sink, hum of the refrigerator, the crackling of bubbles in her soda. But Chloe starts hearing other things as well, such as an unearthly murmuring emanating from the floorboards, and a voice which seems to be calling her name through the static in the old CRT TV– a voice which sounds an awful lot like her mother, who went missing around the time she lost her hearing.
The Unheard marks my first trip to the Brattle since they upgraded to their snazzy new 7.1 Surround Sound rig, and I can scarcely think of a better film to serve as a demonstration of the theater’s new audio capabilities. Simply put, The Unheard is a triumph of sound design. For roughly the first act of the film, we experience the world as Chloe experiences it; we can hear the world around her, but only as a muffled, indistinct roar, as if we are submerged underwater. Brown ingeniously modulates the aural environment depending on the perspective of the characters: dialogue snaps into clarity when Chloe switches on her speech-to-text transcription app, while flashbacks are clear but somewhat garbled, as if half-remembered. When Chloe’s hearing returns, the effect is not unlike the scene in The Wizard of Oz in which Judy Garland leaves her sepia-tone farmhouse and enters the eye-popping Technicolor of Munchkinland. Then, of course, there are the other noises, at first quiet enough to be plausibly denied, but which gradually rise to a deafening pitch. With all due respect to Shudder (which will present the film as an exclusive on 3/31), it’s a shame that most viewers will watch The Unheard in the comfort of their own homes: this is a movie which should be watched loud.
Of course, it would do us little good to be placed inside a character’s head if that character wasn’t compelling to begin with, which leads us to the film’s other secret weapon. Chloe is a challenging role– largely silent by necessity, and alone for much of the film– but Watson deftly handles the character’s nuances; even if it weren’t for the sound design, I have little doubt that we would know exactly what the character is experiencing simply through their facial expressions. Watson is an immensely compelling screen presence (they’re best known as trans boy Theo on Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina), and has the ability to convey both creeping dread and profound loneliness with little more than their eyes. Even when Chloe engages in classic yell-at-the-screen why-would-you-do-that horror movie behavior, Watson keeps us fully grounded and invested. It’s a remarkable performance, and one I will keep in mind for year-end consideration.
The Unheard is not a perfect movie; at over two hours it’s hard not to reach a point of exhaustion, and it has perhaps a handful of ideas too many (I haven’t even touched on the black-gloved stalker lurking within the fringes, or a queer romantic subplot which could stand to be a little more explicit). But the film’s seemingly disparate strains of creepiness work in tandem, from electronic voice phenomenon and the inherent uncanniness of watching distorted old VHS tapes to the family next door, who perfectly embody a distinct Massachusetts archetype I call “townie nightmare people.” By the final reel, the film reaches a fever pitch, with Chloe’s auditory and visual hallucinations seemingly warping the fabric of reality itself. In a Q&A following the film, Brown said that he hoped the film would be watched “alone, late at night, with no distractions,” and I’m inclined to agree; this is how I viewed the film, and I found myself walking into the night of Harvard Square in a daze. I’m looking forward to experiencing that daze repeatedly over the next several nights.
* – I feel I should note here that, while Watson is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, the character of Chloe is identified within the context of the film as a cis female. For the purposes of this review, pronouns will vary depending on whether I’m referring to the character or the actor’s performance.
dir. Jeffrey A. Brown
Screened as part of the 2023 Boston Underground Film Festival – click here for schedule and pass info, and watch this space for our continuing coverage!
Streaming exclusively on Shudder Friday, 3/31