Co-writer, producer, and star Dana Abraham just misses the psychological horror mark
Opening a film with a character dragging a blood-splattered ax around an underlit room qualifies as, if nothing else, attention-grabbing, promising both a mystery and hopefully its answer. Unfortunately, director Rouzbeh Heydari (Cypher, Together Again), working from a script co-written by lead actor Dana Abraham, fails to live to the promise of that opening scene in Neon Lights, a giallo-influenced psychological horror thriller. Subsequent scenes involving Abraham’s character, tech genius Clay Amani, teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown go straight through to a virtual psychic implosion, real and imagined violence, and the occasional dismemberment or death.
Wrenched back into an unclear level of reality, Clay sits at a make up chair, readying himself for an on-air interview that will either help him retain his title as CEO of Tempest Tech or lead to his removal for emotional and mental instability. A counselor of sorts in a red dinner jacket, Denver Kane (Kim Coates), hovers nearby, cajoling Clay to straighten his spine, get his act (temporarily) together, and deliver the kind of steady, confidence-boosting performance needed to keep Clay’s life from falling into an abyss of his own apparent making.
Unsurprisingly, the interview doesn’t go well, leading to Clay’s sudden disappearance and a frantic call to his estranged family—James (Stephen Tracey), Benny (René Escobar Jr.), Benny’s wife, Clarissa (Brit MacRae), and Benny and Clarissa’s bookish teen daughter, Blair (Erika Swayze)—at a predictably remote country estate. It’s been ten years since Clay’s seen or talked to his family. Somehow, though, they decide to drop everything to join him at his estate, either from a mix of curiosity (morbid or otherwise) or the usual venality and greed associated with estranged families when a long-lost prodigal sibling has become obscenely wealthy and powerful.
Given Clay’s obvious mental instability and his family’s not particularly sympathetic reaction, it’s not long before dinnertime conversation devolves into accusations, insults, and an abrupt ending. Almost as quickly, violence enters the film, sometimes obliquely and sometimes directly, with frequent cuts to Clay and his therapist, Laila Mori (Brenna Coates), suggesting that Clay’s experiences may be more subjective, metaphorical, or figurative than they are real. This development pushes Clay in the direction of the unreliable narrator while he is the obfuscatory center of attention.
That’s all well and good, but Neon Lights does little with this premise or its elaboration, relying on Abraham’s outside-in, tic-heavy approach to sell Clay’s mental deterioration and eventual psychological disintegration. It works until it doesn’t, a sign that Abraham the co-screenwriter repeatedly lets down Abraham the actor. Abraham and Heydari also let down the remainder of the cast, forcing them into redundant scenes that don’t reveal individual characters as much as repeat single traits until the result, intentional or not, leads to tedium and an ambiguous yet predictable denouement.
While Neon Lights consistently suffers from an underwritten, deliberately elusive screenplay, at least it looks good visually thanks to Dmitry Lopatin’s color-drenched cinematography and Alexandra Lord’s production. Composer Josh Skerritt’s classically inspired, memorable score also deserves some mention. Individually and collectively, Lopatin, Lord, and Skerritt help to elevate Neon Lights beyond also-ran status into watchable territory. Their contributions, though, suggest that sometimes the sum might not be greater than the parts, but the opposite just might be.
Neon Lights is available to rent or purchase on digital or on-demand.
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