Dir Carles Torrens. USA-Spain, 2016. 90mins
The primal myth text of stalker cinema is John Fowles’ novel The Collector - filmed by William Wyler in 1965, but oddly never remade - which has proved a template for dozens of dramas in which obsessives (usually lonely guys) capture and keep objects of desire (usually pretty women) chained up or caged in basements. The trope was especially common during the ‘torture porn’ boom of the early 2000s (Captivity, Black Snake Moan, The Keeper). Male captives feature in Misery and Oldboy, but the default trophy of the sub-genre is a pretty blonde - like waitress/would-be writer Holly (Ksenia Solo), who is targeted by lonely loser Seth (Dominic Monaghan) in this suspenseful mystery thriller which initially seems a straight lift from Fowles’ book but develops in other, surprising directions.
This small-scale American-Spanish co-production showcases complex performances in initially standard-seeming roles from the leads
Once past a first reel which deliberately sticks to torture porn conventions, Pet is redeemed by a series of developments that take the film into surprising story and character areas. It’s a hard film to sell without spoiling, though it’s likely to work with genre-savvy crowds at festivals and on homevideo platforms where audiences are willing to take a chance without knowing too much in advance about the story.
It starts when Seth, who works in a Los Angeles animal shelter, spots old high school acquaintance Holly on the bus and makes clumsy attempts to woo her. He researches her tastes (roses, seafood) on social media and rehearses pick-up lines, but Holly is too fixated on her own complicated life even to notice him stalking her. After a bruising encounter with Holly’s bartender ex-boyfriend (Nathan Parsons), Seth walks off with the journal in which Holly seems to scribble her every thought and devises a fresh plan - which involves drugging the woman and caging her in a disused basement of the shelter, intent on ‘saving her’.
Just at the point when it seems Pet is settling into a well-worn groove, screenwriter Jeremy Slater (The Lazarus Effect, the ill-fated 2015 Fantastic 4) changes the balance of power. While the opening is told from Seth’s point of view, with important plot points being skated over to be revisited later, Holly then takes over and the film starts springing its surprises. It turns out the victim is much stranger than Seth’s idealised image of her, with a possible multiple personality - she has imaginary conversations with her tough best friend (Jeannette McCurdy) as she experiments with ways to get out of the cage - and a maniacal streak which suggests the mild-mannered kidnapper may not be the most dangerous person in the room.
This small-scale American-Spanish co-production (directed by Carles Torrens, who made the okay found footage ghost story Apartment 143) showcases complex performances in initially standard-seeming roles from the leads. Monaghan manages a balance between creepy and pathetic as a weak antagonist fated to become as much a captive of the situation as his supposed victim, while Solo sells a series of far-fetched twists as an unusual heroine with dark secrets, inner resources and a long-term plan.
A table-turning last act delivers a Tales From the Crypt-ish nasty chuckle which is also a chilling character beat. Monaghan (Lord of the Rings, Lost) already has a solid rep as an oddball character actor, but Solo - hitherto best known as a TV actress (Lost Girl, Orphan Black) - is likely to benefit from this showcase for her range. In a small supporting cast, McCurdy is good in the key role of a perhaps not-entirely-imaginary best friend.
Production Companies: Magic Lantern, Revolver Picture Company
Sales: WTFilms Sonia@wtfilms.fr
Producers: Nick Phillips, Carles Torrens, Kelly Wagner
Executive Producers: Sean Gowrie, Jesus Ulled Nadal
Screenwriter: Jeremy Slater
Cinematography: Timothy A Burton
Editor: Elena Ruiz
Music: Zacarias M. de la Riva
Production Designer: Krystyna Loboda
Main cast: Dominic Monaghan, Ksenia Solo, Jennette McCurdy, Nathan Parsons, Gary J. Tunnicliffe.