Why do we like to be scared? Or seek out horror imagery? And enjoy watching fictional violence? Not everyone does, sure, but us horror fans do.

I went in seeing Sonny Mallhi’s Hurt fairly blind. This was the world premiere and there was no trailer, and the descriptions were vague. A few pictures, of people wearing masks. Just enough to grab my interest. The masks looked creepy.  The less known about the premise, the better, as the first act culminates in a sly use of misperception, playing with our expectations.  This is ultimately what director Sonny Mallhi manipulates throughout the entire film: our perception.

The continuing set-up remains unconventional, as we are led to follow a number of characters until eventually settling on who will be our main protagonist (who is also revealed as someone who is not what they initially appear to be, in a creepy scene all done in close-ups). Soon enough, things are confirmed (after the first act tease) : we are in slasher-film territory. But things are not that simple, or standard.

At first, the style is reminiscent of the ‘’mumblecore’’ type of filmmaking (handheld camerawork, sometimes unfocused, naturalistic lighting), but this is also part of the misdirection. The framing turns out to be very deliberate, showing us what Mallhi wants to when he wants to, both to give or keep information and to create the mood that he’s going for. The pacing is slow and focuses on our main characters (of which there are very few) in a realistic and intimate way. Slowly, this starts to create an uneasy, subtly dreadful feeling.

Eventually, this becomes a stalk-and –slash film, with emphasis on the stalking. We’ve seen this type of thing many times before, but not quite like this. On the surface, it has more in common with classics like ‘’Black Christmas (1974)’’ and ‘’Halloween (1978)’’ than the more typical slasher film, with the emphasis on mood and suspense rather than multiple kills and gore, but then the genius of its intention is revealed. We think we know what’s going on, but…

It’s impressive how Mallhi ultimately tells his story. It’s also impressive that he manages to do what most films of the genre are supposed to and usually try: to actually be scary, and with a story that’s deceptively straightforward and that we’ve basically seen many times before. Or so we think. The ultimate subversion of our expectations, carefully and patiently constructed throughout, is at once genius and simple.

There’s a meta analysis of our relationship with horror at the core of Hurt, which is Mallhi’s whole point. Not necessarily horror movies per se, but our desire to be scared and to scare. As such, deciding to set the story on Halloween is perfect, and it’s one of the best uses of the holiday I’ve ever seen in a horror film; not just in the way to make the surroundings and visuals scarier (the design of the masks is terrific) but also to help explore its themes. There is a lengthy sequence taking place in a haunt fair that turns out to be crucial is so many ways to both the events following it and their meaning.

As it turns out, this unconventionally-shot, familiar story is interested in asking big questions. Its structure is brilliant. Its subject fascinatingly explored. Its conclusion incredibly satisfying. It’s also immensely helped by its lead performances (especially Emily van Raay) which are completely believable.

One of the biggest surprises I’ve recently seen coming from the genre. Sonny Mallhi sticks a mirror in its intended audience’s face, while giving us exactly what we crave.

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