A modern and unrelentingly tense psychological thriller based on a theory of the origins of shortwave radio frequencies, Shortwave is an unnerving reminder that some stones are best left unturned.
Ryan Gregory Phillips
Frank Ponce (story editor)
Ryan Gregory Phillips
Cristobal Tapia Montt
Do not adjust your dials. Turn up the volume and put on your thinking caps. The new horror-drama Shortwave had its Utah premiere at this year’s Filmquest and will (hopefully) soon be on its way to a screen near you. I had a chance to sit down with writer/director Ryan Gregory Phillips while at the festival, and the film is currently weighing multiple offers for distribution. In the meantime, it’s continuing its festival run. Here’s the lowdown:
Radio-wave researcher Josh (Cristobal Tapia Montt) and his wife Isabel (Juanita Ringeling) are still reeling from the sudden and unexplained abduction/disappearance of their young daughter. The tragedy has affected their life and Josh’s research – much to the chagrin of his best friend and fellow scientist, Thomas (Kyle Davis). To attempt a fresh start, Josh and Isabel relocate to a company smart-house (complete with a lab on site) in an isolated and beautifully-wooded area. As the research continues, Isabel tries to overcome her debilitating grief. Josh and Thomas have a momentous breakthrough on a signal they’ve been trying to decipher/locate (of possible extraterrestrial origins) and the mysterious signal seems to have a deep impact upon the vulnerable Isabel. Strange things, dark figures and wild hallucinations begin to haunt Isabel – and as things spiral violently downward in this remote home, the audience is taken on an exhilarating and mind-expanding, mind-**** of a ride.
Taking cues from films like Ex Machina (in look) and Fire in the Sky (in terrifying alien abduction sequences), Shortwave has a voice and a style all its own.
The two lead performances are remarkably strong. As Josh, Cristobal Tapia Montt (nominated for Best Supporting Actor in a Feature at Filmquest) perfectly captures the equal parts frustration and deep love that he has for Isabel. Josh is patient, but exasperated – while Isabel deals with the fallout from their child’s disappearance. He’s also pressured on the other side by his research partner. Basically, Josh is being pulled in every direction – and we all know that no one can continue such exhausting turmoil forever. Montt makes this turmoil palpable and real.
Juanita Ringeling won the Best Actress in a Feature award at Filmquest. And it’s easy to see why. It’s a frightening performance – and you would think that Isabel was already at the very rock bottom as the film begins – certainly once you learn even more about how the grief has affected her. But as Isabel becomes more and more at one with the shortwave signals – Ringeling takes Isabel even deeper. What’s amazing about her performance is that her pain reaches into the audience’s gut. And I will say this – being inside Isabel’s grief is not necessarily a pleasant experience. In other words, nicely done, Ms. Ringeling.
And speaking of all this heartache and grief, Phillips mentioned that the difficulties and distance the characters are facing, comes from a very personal place. During the writing process, he visited with grief counselors and people who had lost children. Phillips: “It’s one of the most depressing things I’ve ever experienced.”
He went on to say, “I did have some really close friends that passed away right before Shortwave. There were influences in my life – relationships ending, growing pains of normal life. Those were reflected in my writing. So a lot of the distance between Josh and Isabel – no sex thing. They’re not intimate. That was direct from me – I was living that. Because when you’re not intimate – not even intimacy, just… you’re not connecting, either physical, mental, emotional. Whatever you want to call it. If you’re not on that level, you’re not on that level. So people always say, ‘You write what you know’.”
Phillips also edited the film, and along with the production design, it’s a visually rich experience. Shooting in a location in the Hollywood Hills and intermixing that with exterior footage of upstate New York – well, it’s a perfectly executed trick to make you believe you’ve been whisked away to a house situated in the middle of nowhere in some distant European land.
I enjoyed the severity of the score – certainly once the film picked up and the climax marched forward – it got under your skin. And I understand the need for a film like this to heighten the decibel levels. But I found (certainly during the film’s first act) that the music was too overpowering. It simply became a distraction from the acting and the dialogue.
As for the film’s genre, it’s a mish-mash of the various categories – all culminating in what is an almost hypnotic and deliciously indescribable and inescapable film experience. Phillips wouldn’t necessarily call it “horror”, but based on some of the things you’ll experience on-screen – folks, Shortwave is – by and large – a horror film.
The make-up and special effects are a gorehound’s dream. Despite the fact that the film is a very esoteric and dreamy ride, there’s no shortage on gnarly and gag-worthy special effects. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where these images will take you – let’s just say that at one point, I was reminded of Lucio Fulci’s horror classic, Zombie – in some of the grotesque and abrasively (read: exciting) violent gore effects.
Not everything in the film worked. I wasn’t terribly fond of the several (seemingly) multiple endings. Even something as simple as fewer fade-to-black’s, would have made a difference. All of the information we discover during the climax is necessary – it just felt like the film could have ended numerous times and still have been somewhat satisfying.
There was also one (certainly non-fatal) slip-up in the film. There’s a point where something violent occurs (one of many), and the authorities are inexplicably never called in. It’s moments like this where your mind is taken out of the carefully crafted atmosphere. Even in a sci-fi, fantasy, horror-drama like this, certain things cannot be left unexplained. Wouldn’t this dangerous and violent event have resulted in a visit from police or EMT’s? Minor, but still noticeable.
Already at a spry 85 minutes, I feel the film could have benefited from some slight cuts. There’s plenty of time early on to impress upon the audience the crippling estrangement between the grieving couple and Isabel’s now listless and uncertain existence. While the term “slow burn” is thrown around – we still would have gotten the necessary information about their life post-tragedy – with a little less set-up.
But when that “burn” does gather kindling and is drenched with gasoline – watch out! Shortwave becomes a disturbing and unflinching non-stop thrill-ride that messes with your “fight or flight” response. You’re jumping out of your seat at the numerous “boo” moments and scratching your head at the heightened ideas of dimension, aimless radio waves (or are they?) and the many harrowing examples of how grief affects our openness to other plains of existence. Shortwave is not an easy film.
Both a prequel and a sequel are in the works. And on board for that development is Stephen Susco – writer of The Grudge and The Grudge 2, as well as the forthcoming Flatliners remake. Phillips gave me some clue-ins to these other chapters (which I can’t mention here) and it all certainly sounds intriguing.
So based on that information, and since the details of this film’s creatures are never explained (the trailer tells us there is something inhuman in the film – so this is not a spoiler), I asked Phillips if he knows what they are. “I know 110% what they are. It is explained in the sequel. I can promise you this – you could guess for a million years, and you’re not gonna get it. It’ll blow your f***ing mind. The juice is worth the squeeze.”
Shortwave won the most awards at this year’s Filmquest with four Cthulu trophies – including Best Director for Phillips, Best Actress in a Feature for Ringeling, Best Sound and Best Cinematography. It was also nominated for Best Feature Film.
As I said above, Shortwave is by and large a horror film. But even with that categorization, the story comes back to the vulnerability of loss and the challenge of grief. Phillips: “If you’re creating this world. If you’re doing a piece that has such weight – with someone losing a child… You need to pay respect to that.” Despite the gore, “boo” moments and violent imagery – the film is about loss, in many different forms.
Consider this your confirmation to now adjust your radio dial – on the condition that you plan to seek out a forthcoming screening of Shortwave at a theatre near you. Proceed.