Christian Schultz and Thomas Johnston’s Presence has some beautiful visuals but unfortunately can’t escape from its derivative and uninteresting narrative.
Making an effective horror film is likely one of the toughest tasks you can pass down to a filmmaker. Sure, judging by the sheer volume of horror movies that are released year after year, it would seem like an easy job, but it’s an especially difficult task to make a strong example in the genre. Christian Schultz and Thomas Johnston’s Presence is yet another horror film that has been released in a tidal wave of the genre that has something special tucked inside of it visually but, despite its original and unique visual imagery, it can’t make up for its dull narrative and flat characters.
Presence follows Jennifer (Jenn Lyng Adams), who leaves New York following a breakdown. Jennifer is suddenly contacted by her best friend, Samantha (Alexandria DeBerry) who presents her with good news regarding their joint business venture, with a possible investor and billionaire named David (Dave Davis) who is potentially on board with their vision. David invites the two young business partners onboard his private yacht and what starts as a pleasant business trip becomes something more sinister when Jennifer starts to have violent and gruesome nightmares.
From the outset, Presence shines on a technical level with a strong confident hand in Schultz and Johnston’s direction as well as some captivating uses of lighting. The dream sequences that the character of Jennifer goes through are haunting and manage to create a thick atmosphere that, for the most part, Presence does attempt to use to its advantage. At 80 minutes, the film also has a strong sense of pacing throughout, as no time is wasted and we follow this narrative become increasingly complicated. On paper, the structure and ideas that Presence brings forward are solid, but the cracks in the film’s foundation begin to show when we delve a little deeper into the characters and narrative itself.
Jennifer is a character who, even before the events of the film truly kick off, is already troubled by dark things buried inside of her. With an ex-boyfriend and a troubled relationship with Samantha, Jennifer is someone with a lot of baggage that acts as the heart and overall emotional core of Presence. However, this core of the film isn’t developed enough to be anything truly substantial due to how ultimately shallow the characters of Presence are. Jennifer, Samantha and David are three characters who we are forced to follow through the film’s lean 80-minute runtime. However, from the moment they are on the screen to their final moments, each of these characters mostly falls flat, as they all follow similar narrative paths and act less as real living characters and more as familiar plot devices that you’ve more than likely seen in other films in the genre. David in particular is a rich and self-centred billionaire, but rather than showing us how this mindset affects him and his mindset, Presence feels like simply telling the viewer that this is who this character is, clichés and all, makes for a more effective approach.
Despite the film’s unsubtle character work, Presence is also a film that attempts to lean into being a more interpretive tale that seeks to offer more questions than answers. This mix of telling the viewer what to feel or think of certain events or characters in an explicit manner while also trying to be a more artful and subtle piece of storytelling leaves Presence feeling at odds with itself by the final stretch.
Christian Schultz and Thomas Johnston’s Presence has some incredibly confident visuals for a directorial debut that spells a bright future for both of the directors. Unfortunately, the film’s muddled plotline and incredibly dull character work make it feel sluggish in its execution and not worth the investment despite its extremely concise and economic runtime. Presence is ultimately a film whose premise you’ve seen before and, more than likely, executed in a far more interesting manner. That said, it’s a debut with some potential that could lead to an interesting career path if the strengths are continually refined into something even brighter.
Presence will be released on North American VOD on November 17, 2022.