Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Abruptio...stands out because of its format but has a strong narrative and smart ideas behind it."

How far would you be prepared to go to stay alive? Most people don’t know, but if you’ve ever been – or been close to – an addict, you’ll be aware that ordinary, civilised priorities fall by the wayside very easily when desperation sets in. Ironically, a similar desperation often manifests in the desire to quit, which involves a physically and psychologically dangerous transition. At such times, it can be hard to accept that one still bears full responsibility for one’s actions. One might feel as if one’s fate is in the hands of some higher power, as if one is no more than a puppet.

Les (voiced by James Marsters) has been sober for two days. So far, life on the other side is not looking all that good. His girlfriend has left him. He’s miserable at work. He’s almost found himself in a car accident. All that pales into insignificance, however, when and unexpected message prompts him to examine the back of his neck and find stitches there. His friend Danny (Jordan Peele) tells him that a bomb has been implanted in the back of his neck. He knows because it has happened to him too. Les then begins to receive text messages on his phone, commanding him to undertake brutal, murderous missions, because if he doesn’t do what he’s told – well, you can guess that part.

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Made over seven years with a lot more patience and craft than ready cash, Abruptio, which won the Audience Award for Best FX at 2023’s Panic Fest, stands out because of its format but has a strong narrative and smart ideas behind it. As the final shot reveals, its use of puppets is more than just a gimmick but adds its own layer of meaning. It also allows director Evan Marlowe to do things which be difficult, expensive or simply too dangerous with real actors, as well as things so horrific that audiences and censors might not stand for it. Strange to say, despite its extremes, the horror has a purpose too, serving the plot but, more importantly, working at a metaphorical level.

As you’d expect, there’s a huge amount of creativity here. The expressiveness of the puppets is impressive and very well used, but there are also some wonderfully anarchic elements as we see them interacting with real world props and settings. There are no sex scenes but an interesting approach to sexuality highlights the ways that women are objectified in conventional thrillers, and does so hilariously, whilst Les’ journey includes an element of coming to terms with why some women find him creepy and resisting his desire to take advantage of Chelsea (Hana Mae Lee), a young woman who tumbles into his life in a desperately vulnerable state and who would end up as the hero’s girlfriend in 90% of such films.

Horror fans will find the film a particular treat because of the great cameos it includes from legendary stars like Robert Englund and Sid Haig, both of whom are lots of fun. It also plays with classic genre themes, to it own ends. Rather than limiting itself to playing out the bomb plot, it expands stage by stage to build up a complex universe, before pulling the rug from under us at the very end. The way that it does this bears interesting parallels with another recent genre film, but that’s where the comparison ends. Abruptio is something unique. If you find it distressing, try to keep watching. There are some things which should distress us, and for all its delicious dark comedy, Marlowe’s deeply human film reminds us why.

Reviewed on: 27 Apr 2023
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Abruptio packshot
A man who is down on his luck wakes up one day to find that an explosive device has been implanted in his neck.

Director: Evan Marlowe

Writer: Evan Marlowe

Starring: James Marsters, Christopher McDonald, Hana Mae Lee, Jordan Peele, Robert Englund, Sid Haig

Year: 2023

Runtime: 94 minutes

Country: US

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