Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.

This film should have been a bigger hit.

After an effectively creepy prologue set ten years prior to the story proper, we are introduced to Molly on her first day attending a new school.  In the wake of a traumatic homicidal attack by her now-institutionalized mother, Molly’s dad has opted for a “fresh start” and has moved with his daughter to a new house in a new town, with a new job and a new school for Molly… just minutes away from the psych ward hosting dear old mum.

What we know thus far is this, and it’s enough for a good starting place: Molly’s mother isn’t the only one who believes that certain teenagers are destined for a life of evil once they turn eighteen… and the monsters must be stopped.  Is Molly’s mom nuts?  Is Molly’s paranoia merely that—a teen angst-induced perception that the world is out to get her?  What about the fate of the prologue’s Laurel Miller in 1997, and how is that connected to Molly?  Can Molly be helped by Alexis, her Bible-toting new chum?  Will rebel gal Leah figure into the plot as friend, or foe? Will flirtation with the school’s resident BMOC prove more trouble than it’s worth?  Well, whaddya think?

First-time feature-director Mickey Liddell rather amazingly pushes all the right cinematic buttons in leveraging the fact that nearly every teen feels like a freak, and at some level fears becoming an adult.  “What is it we are about to become?” I mused as Molly’s story progressed.  And, literally, just moments after I jotted that note, one of the characters asked the very same question.

Liddell also craftily wields the power of fear in crafting this spooky—and surprisingly dark—tale.  “Fear is a very powerful emotion,” Molly is counseled. “It makes you see and hear things that aren’t really there.”  It’s true enough in Molly’s case—or is it?—and it’s true enough for us, as Liddell exercises movie-making sleight-of-hand in skewing our perspective just enough that we can’t see what’s coming as Molly wends her way to her fate… even though the clues are all obvious enough.

Tellingly, for instance, when we first meet BMOC Joseph in class, he’s “in the middle of Paradise Lost.”  Liddell’s lit-class setting is well-used throughout the film as the class’s nonetheless secularist teacher touts the Bible as educational, rightly pointing out that, if you’re ignorant of the detailed story of the Judeo-Christian heritage, you’re pretty much incapable of properly reading or understanding most art… including this film.  When the teacher passes out uniform biblical texts and assigns reading, Alexis objects, preferring her own sanctioned translation.  And she resists the idea of studying the Bible as a textbook.  “I can navigate in a secular world without questioning my beliefs,” she advises.

Well.  One of the surprises of Molly Hartley is that it actually takes seriously—within the scope of the story—the notion that demons are living amongst us and must be dealt with in some fashion.  In this respect, it’s a worthy descendant of The Exorcist or The Omen, or even the recent The Exorcism of Emily Rose, the tone of which is a nice match for Hartley.  Unlike that of Emily Rose, however, Molly’s fate is more metaphysical than physical.  Screening this film back-to-back with the late Bill Paxton’s 2001 directorial effort Frailty would sure yield some provocative discussions.

Very disappointingly, however, the film exercises one of the genre’s standard gambits by playing the voyeurism card.  In the early going, thanks largely to outstanding performances by Haley Bennett as Molly and Shannon Marie Woodward as Leah, I was hopeful that Liddell would go no further than the tried-and-true waif-in-peril approach utilized in the prologue—which is itself deeply rooted in the sexual tension at which our culture thrills when a lone female, often scantily-clad, is “watched” by some malevolent presence.  Would such a scene work, for instance, if it featured a gay male or a construction worker?  I doubt it.  We just wouldn’t react in the same way.

But I felt bad for Bennett when Liddell made her trot around unnecessarily in her bra, or finally had her walk dark streets without one.  Are erect nipples really requisite for narrative tension?  I think Liddell could have—and should have—done without them here, as well, despite the long history of precedent dating back well beyond the French classic Diabolique.

Still, this is a surprisingly good—and chaste—little movie.  It’s blood-and-guts-free, there’s no gratuitous sex, and it takes the spiritual world about as seriously as a Hollywood movie can. It’ll also make you track down more of both Bennett and Woodward in other performances.  If psychological thrillers are your thing, you could do lots, lots worse.

The Haunting of Molly Hartley is now included with your Amazon Prime subscription. You can also stream at YouTube.

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