‘Always Shine’ Is an Inventive and Off-Kilter Horror Film

Movies about the film industry usually don’t work. They often amount to a series of inside jokes that make little sense to audiences who aren’t part of the system. “Always Shine,” the new film from director Sophia Takal, turns the Hollywood film into an exploration of female relationships and the ways women are exploited in the film industry. It’s also a chilling exploration of madness.

The two most striking shots in “Always Shine” occur right at the beginning of the film. It opens with Beth (Caitlin Fitzgerald) standing against a wall and staring straight into the camera. She pleads with an unseen man not to kill her, and offers her body to him in hopes of saving herself. But as she pulls the shoulder straps of her dress down, she loses her concentration, and an unseen voice reminds her that the film will require nudity. She’s been acting out a scene for an audition. As the producers and director chime in, it’s clear that they’re more concerned about Beth’s “extensive nudity” than anything else. She’s had to be nude in many little avant garde films, and now she’ll have to do it again in this horror film if she wants to be part of the cast.

Anna (Mackenzie Davis) is introduced shortly after that in the same way, standing against a beige wall and staring into the camera. She’s just been charged by a mechanic for repairs she wasn’t informed of. Her temper is barely controlled, which isn’t helped when the mechanic refuses to address her complaints because she’s “not acting like a lady.” We expect the reveal that Anna is also acting out a scene around this point, but we’ve been tricked—Anna really is in a mechanic’s garage. With these opening scenes, Takal makes it clear that she doesn’t mind fooling the audience.

Beth and Anna are friends. Beth has acted in multiple art films, and has now graduated to a lead role in a terrible horror film about trolls and serial killer (as dark as it is, “Always Shine” is filled with gallows humor). Anna is still stuck doing tiny parts, sometimes for free. She’s insecure and jealous of Beth’s relative success. Anna constantly wears blood-red lipstick and does her hair up in a severe ponytail. She’s ready to lash out at the smallest provocations.

The two decide to take a short trip out to Big Sur to decompress, but as they drive there the film’s editing becomes increasingly fractured and frenetic. Barely perceptible glimpses of pain and violence involving Beth and Anna flash across the screen as the drive out to the woods. The brief cuts foreshadow later events, but it’s impossible to tell exactly what will happen.

“Always Shine” is clearly influenced by Ingmar Bergman‘s “Persona.” That film also dealt with the insecurities of actors. Like “Persona,” Anna and Beth will start to fuse their personalities and to mimic each other in disturbing ways.

Although Takal initially explores how Anna and Beth are forced to compete with each other and humiliate themselves for acting jobs, that focus is mostly lost two-thirds of the way through the film. At that point it just becomes a descent into insanity. Still, the film remains effective and stylish. Takal slowly zooms in with the camera, an effective cribbed from classic 1970s horror films and psychological thrillers. It gives us the sense of being voyeurs, peering into the lives of two people as they collapse in front of us.

“Always Shine” avoids many of the clichés of psychological thrillers. It’s more art film than slasher flick. The film’s ending is a disappointment, a quick wrap-up that fails to engage with the themes the movie has been developing up to that point. But that’s a minor quibble. The film is still a stylish and intelligent exploration of female exploitation.

Watch the trailer below:

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