Roxanne Benjamin is the writer and director of some of the most intriguing horror films of the last decade. In this discussion of her filmography we’ll be taking a look at the three short films she wrote and/or directed leading up to her first full-length feature: Body at Brighton Rock.
“SIREN” – SOUTHBOUND (2015) – Hulu
Southbound is an anthology style film with five vignettes that flow seamlessly into each other. Benjamin’s vignette, “Siren”, finds a three-piece rock band stranded in the middle of nowhere with a blown-out tire and no spare (to make room for the drum kit of course). Benjamin introduces two shots in this short which we will see carry through all of her work: Shots with nature as their main subject, and voyeuristic shots of the characters taken diegetically within the scene.
The desert they are in is portrayed lovingly by the camera, it is a thing of beauty, and the dangers of dehydration or sunburn aren’t really in the forefront of the brain. Inside the van we get a close-up of a photograph displaying four women, the three we’ve been introduced to (including our main character, Sadie) and one more that we haven’t. A couple stops their car to offer them shelter for the night, they refuse and the car starts to pull forward before they reconsider and shout for the car to stop. The band talks amongst themselves and the camera goes from capturing them up close, to a static shot looking out the rear window of the car from the trunk. This, with the strange mannerisms of the couple, does quite a bit to establish tension, to tell us, the audience, that our protagonists should not go with these weirdos. Of course they do anyway, and on entering the car they see that the trunk is occupied by a bear trap, half obscured by a blanket.
The rest of the film unfolds the tension and foreshadowing of the first scene: the weirdos are part of an eternal life cult, they feed creepy meat to two of our three protagonists and, after vomiting some nasty black juice, they become happy-puppets for their demon lord. Under the guise of “just helping” the couple has stripped them of their agency. Backstory is also revealed, via the newly possessed, that fleshes out Sadie’s guilt over the fourth woman’s (Alex’s) disappearance, and presumed death. Sadie is resolved in her innocence. A shot of Sadie in the bathroom reveals a figure silhouetted behind a glass block wall (which is a thing in this cult’s bathroom), undulating past (could it be Alex?!?).
Sadie discovers her friends and the couple performing an induction ceremony in the woods, and the voyeur camera shot gives us Sadie’s perspective as she lurks behind trees. The camera’s view is obscured in the way Sadie’s is. Alex, it turns out, is also “possessed” returning to haunt Sadie, but only via the will of this cult. Once more, Sadie resists others attempts to use guilt to gain power over her. She ultimately escapes to the freeway where, trying to flag down a passing car, she is struck and (sometime later) she dies of her injuries. In dying, though, has she avoided the greater horror of eternal life?
Last crucial detail I’m going to tie back to later: while escaping the cult Sadie is hobbled by a bear trap.
BIRTHDAY PARTY – XX (2017) – Netflix
The second short in this series, “Birthday Party,” was written by Benjamin in collaboration with Annie Clark (aka musician St. Vincent!). The film was directed by Clark, and so is a departure from the style established in “Siren.”
The story follows a mother who, on the morning of her daughter’s birthday party, discovers that her husband has passed away suddenly. Her social anxiety pushes her to keep the dead body a secret, preserving her daughter’s special day. It’s all the stress of getting ready for guests with the added bonus of keeping a body hidden.
The “horror” of the situation is treated with comedic detachment. The stakes are only as high as someone finding the dead body and ending the party, but these stakes are driven higher and higher the closer we get to party time.
Most of what I want to touch on here is thematic, since Benjamin was not working the camera. The idea of being overburdened is reinforced throughout the short, and it all spills over at the end. It hyperbolizes the way our anxieties make our lives worse when we think we’re getting in front of an issue, in order to make a point.
DON’T FALL – XX
The third short in “XX” was directed and written by Benjamin. It opens with a wide shot of an enormous rock, with forest visible beyond, and our protagonists bantering as they ascend. It pans out slowly to reveal the title of the short in striking red: Don’t Fall. They reach the top and the camera reveals a breathtaking vista below, and shots of our characters framed from beneath. Gretchen, the scaredy cat and our audience surrogate, discovers that she is leaning against some sort of pictographic drawing, the dash of ancient magic that sets the rest of the story in motion.
Back at their trailer it is revealed that it might not be legal for them to be camping and hiking on this land. The voyeur camera creeps on Gretchen through the trailer’s window. The camera is whatever malevolence that now haunts them. In a pretty straightforward sequence, the demon from the pictograph takes over Gretchen’s body and drives her to kill her friends. The last kill is significant, because the victim falls (the title says not to do that!) and we see her POV of Murder-Gretchen framed above her, a reflection of these same shots from the beginning of the film.
Like “Siren,” this short features a group of young adults in a rural area.
BODY AT BRIGHTON ROCK (2019)
This film is Benjamin’s first full-length feature. Like Silence of the Lambs, the opening follows our main character, Wendy, as she jogs behind the credits. Interspersed cuts of a classroom of park rangers having morning announcements introduce a John Hughes-esque tone. The introduction is comedic, light-hearted.
“No day-of assignment trading” says the head ranger, aka Harbinger of Doom.
“Let’s trade assignments!” says Wendy, in a selfless but transgressive act. As she sets out onto the trail Wendy looks for a moment at the large map of the park, held by a smokey the bear type character. The camera lingers on the bear as Wendy moves on. This drops the first seed of something sinister for the viewer.
A fun, 80s music soaked montage brings Wendy up the trail, further away from basecamp, until she reaches her intended destination: Hitchback peak. Her climb is precarious but triumphant. As in “Don’t Fall” emphasis is put on Wendy’s feet, threatening a nasty fall. A texted selfie reveals that she is not on Ridgeback, and that there is someone behind her in the shot. Someone turns out to be a dead body. The shots trade between framing Wendy against the majesty of the valley behind her, and tight shots of the phone screen. It’s compelling if only for the juxtaposition, and the shots of the location are spectacular. As things start going downhill for Wendy, Benjamin’s voyeur camera watches Wendy from behind a tree. She radios the nearest rangers about the body, and is told she’ll have to wait until morning for rescue.
Benjamin uses wide shots of the body intercut with frantic close-ups of individual body parts: an arm, a bloated eye, giving us insight into what Wendy’s imagination is fixating on. As a whole, it’s just a dead body, an object, it’s the details of the decomposition that frighten and disgust her.
After being asked to secure the area (a potential crime scene!) Wendy finds a campsite nearby, and investigates the tent for supplies. Wendy is now completely enclosed, trapped, and it starts to sound like something is creeping towards the tent, circling her. Though ultimately it’s just a tree scraping the tent’s side, seeing it from Wendy’s perspective, scared and in too deep, is terrifying. In a movie that is 99% outdoors, this use of enclosed space is interesting and cool.
The stakes for the rest of the movie are now well established: survive alone until morning. And then another living person appears. Living people have intentions, living people are capable of deceit. The dynamic speaks volumes: a man who disregards Wendy’s authority as a park representative. This man is nothing but danger. He leaves when pressed but now we know he’s out there, and that presence looms over Wendy from that moment on.
I would argue that the overnight scene is the climax of the film. By the end of it, Wendy has looked death in the face and said “you don’t scare me.” This is her scene of character growth and her metaphorical ascension is paralleled by her climb back up to the clifftop. Her nightmares of the corpse becoming a zombie and chasing her bleed into waking hallucinations, and again we’re getting a hyperbolized vision of Wendy’s anxiety so that we can empathize with it. And as she climbs back to the clifftop the man reappears, grabbing at her from below, attempting to pull her back down. She kicks at him, and he plummets down the cliff face. The camera never shows us where he lands.
Morning comes and rescue is within reach. The cover for the film has indicated that this would be the climax of the film, but I don’t think that’s it. It’s like the last breath of the zombie or masked killer you didn’t check was dead. The bear that has been foreshadowed for the entire film appears and attacks Wendy. It is dead-eyed ferocity. No reasoning, just a death machine. Wendy doesn’t run, and is ultimately able to drive the bear away using a makeshift flamethrower, but not before sustaining a nasty bite on the ankle. Maybe I’m just reaching here, but this parallels the injury Sadie receives near the end of Sirens, the first short film, we discussed. Maybe cameras linger on feet because they are agency, enemies go for the ankles to try and remove that agency. Maybe there’s something there.
She meets up with the rescue team, but the film has one more trick up its sleeve. The identity of the corpse matches the identity of the mystery man. He was dead the whole time. And sure it’s a cliche, but it’s done in a pretty interesting way, it’s not hamfisted, and it makes me want to watch the movie through again with this new information. And what does it imply? Maybe the place is haunted. Maybe Wendy is an unreliable narrator who murdered a man and covered it up, though I don’t really think that’s it. The movie, taken at face value, is still a great thriller, and it leaves me with enough questions that I haven’t stopped thinking about it.