Movie Review ~ Torn Hearts

The Facts:

Synopsis: A country music duo seeks out their idol and ends up in a twisted series of horrors that force them to confront the limits they’d go for their dreams.
Stars: Katey Sagal, Abby Quinn, Alexxis Lemire, Joshua Leonard, Shiloh Fernandez
Director: Brea Grant
Rated: NR
Running Length: 97 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  Horror is a genre that can be mighty deceiving to unsuspecting audiences, creating many unhappy campers that have selected their watch based on shaky marketing. Sure, the poster looks spooky and slick, but the film is a bottom-of-the-barrel cheap-o endeavor that barely rises above home movie footage. So, you must be smart and look at the studio releasing it. You can tell a lot from the production company that either puts their money into the movie as a financer or picks up the film after completion for distribution. Either way, they’re putting a stamp of approval on it that speaks to their brand.

Admittedly, Blumhouse Productions have a line of stinkers in their roster, and this is going to be a positive review of Torn Hearts, so I’m going to leave them out. Instead, let’s focus on the good ones that far outweigh the bad apples. Titles like Paranormal Activity, Get Out, Happy Death Day, The Purge, and the 2018 Halloween are their bread and butter, not to mention all their numerous sequels. While the pandemic slowed the pace of their production slightly, they had no trouble ramping back up quickly once cameras were rolling again. However, not all are meant for big-screen releases, and that’s where an intriguing effort like director Brea Grant’s Torn Hearts comes in. Debuting through Blumhouse Television and EPIX (as well as other pay-to-play sites like Amazon Prime), it mixes a dangerous cocktail of bold ambition, country music, and bloody brutality.

Nashville country duo Torn Hearts checks most of the boxes that signal they are ready to begin a long career in the business. Jordan (Abby Quinn, Little Women) is the songwriter and guitarist singing harmony along with Leigh (Alexxis Lemire, The Half of It), who tackles the melody while playing tambourine. Leigh is the more marketable of the two, and both know it, though they also recognize they are stronger working as a team than as solo artists. While Leigh is dating their manager (Joshua Leonard, Four Good Days), Jordan can’t stand to see her friend fall into that cliché trap. 

A chance introduction to country superstar Caleb (Shiloh Fernandez, The Evil Dead) hints at the possibility of opening for him on tour, but the women wind up with what they imagine to be a real jackpot. Caleb came close to recording a comeback single with the antisocial Harper Dutch (Katey Sagal, Pitch Perfect 2), half of a sister act that retreated from the public eye after Harper’s sister killed herself while she watched. Caleb gives Jordan Harper’s address, and before you know it, the women have skipped their early morning recording session for a quick jaunt to meet their idol. 

They find a nervy, finger-tapping recluse who resists meeting them at first but, after sizing them up, decides to hear them play. Seeing something in both women reminding her of what she once had with her sister, Harper invites the duo to stay and collaborate on a song…or so they think. Preying on both of their insecurities in increasingly manipulative and violently bizarre methods, Harper tests their strength as individuals to see if they have what it takes to remain unified or if their idea of fame is more focused on a solo spotlight.   

I feel that Torn Hearts might have still worked if it hadn’t had celebrated television star and former Bette Midler backup singer Sagal in a central role, but it absolutely would have lacked the bite Sagal brings. There’s a certain authenticity, especially in the limited singing Sagal is allowed to do, that makes you believe her unhinged character has the potential for enacting any mayhem she chooses. Sagal is working in The Zone, and it elevates the film from a random horror/thriller to a level of more sophistication. She’s supported nicely by Quinn’s acerbic Sara Gilbert in Roseanne-esque take on an alternative modern woman in country music. If Lemire winds up feeling a bit soft, it’s only due to writer Rachel Koller Croft designing her to be a bit of a limp noodle throughout. Besides, once Sagal enters the film around twenty minutes in, all you’ll be wanting is more more more of her.

Director Grant balances time between acting (so great in The Stylist and Lucky) and directing (12 Hour Shift) and clearly has a talent for this genre, especially for creating strong female protagonists (even if they are off their rockers) with a clear point of view. I appreciate that Blumhouse Television and EPIX is making room for filmmakers like Grant and Croft and giving roles to actresses like Sagal while expanding the careers of Quinn and Lemire. All have experience in the industry, but the extra exposure of a well-made release like Torn Hearts increases their value.

Movie Review ~ Shepherd

The Facts:

Synopsis: Haunted by the recent death of his wife, widower Eric Black seeks solitude as a shepherd on a remote Scottish island. As the bleak desolation of the foreboding landscape and terrifying visions overwhelm him, Eric is pushed to the brink of madness.
Stars: Tom Hughes, Kate Dickie, Gaia Weiss, Greta Scacchi
Director: Russell Owen
Rated: R
Running Length: 103 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review:  If you are anything like me, when you’re exhausted and not wanting to put forth much effort, there are types of movies you look for as you scroll through a queue on a streaming service by going off the displayed image alone. Maybe you’ll read the description. Maybe you’ll watch a trailer (for me, the first 30 seconds or so). Maybe you’ll do a quick IMDb search to ensure the film doesn’t have a 2.2-user rating. Usually, though, you point, click, and go for it. Shepherd is a film you watch because you’ve gone to the horror section, seen the creepy cover, read the words “remote Scottish island,” and decided that brief blurb sold you.

A recent widower (Tom Hughes, Infinite) struggles to adjust to life without his wife, who had perished in a car accident and whose body was never recovered. Early on, there’s a suggestion from his mother (Greta Scacchi, so glamorous in 1990s Presumed Innocent, now dressed to look like a potato sack marm) that the wife had affairs. Perhaps that’s why the man can’t fully reconcile with her death…or the loss of the baby she was carrying at the time. Over coffee, he finds a want ad for a shepherd with lodging in a lighthouse on a desolate piece of land off Scotland’s coast and seizes that opportunity to escape his memories. 

Wouldn’t you know it, alone with just his dog and several sheep to keep him company, all he has are dark recollections of the past that begin to haunt his present? The grizzled boat captain with the milky eye (Kate Dickie, Prometheus) who brought him over speaks as if she can see through secrets he has hidden away, but does she have something to do with the odd occurrences which start to happen to him? What of the figure in black that appears as a harbinger of doom and draws ever closer, urging him to repent? Are these happenings all in his mind, the result of a grief-stricken husband that hasn’t yet fully dealt with his loss, or are they the result of guilt manifested as supernatural spooks biting at his heels for eternity? What if it’s not in his mind, and something genuinely is out to get him?

I want to say that writer/director Russell Owen’s chilly thriller cuts some new ground in the genre, but Shepherd is a generic ghost tale that otherwise gets the job done much of the time. Working through a pre-made checklist of necessary things that go bump in the run-down lighthouse, Owen creates a pleasant mood for most of his feature film but never makes a case for it being anything you feel the need to recommend to a friend. It simply suits its purpose, and that’s that. Shock jolts arrive and dissipate, tension mounts and releases, the sun goes down, and it comes up. You can hear the pages flipping, almost as if Owen and his crew are working through a textbook.

Not one to completely write off, Shepherd does have good work from Hughes and especially the dependable Dickie who never met a line she can’t make into some ominous portent of doom. Primarily a solo exercise for Hughes, it helps that the actor holds our attention for most of the (too long) run time. Would this have been trimmed up to 80-ish minutes, it would have allowed the tension to remain tighter longer and kept the weaker passages filled with paint-by-numbers drama out of it completely. If you toss this one on around 9:15 pm, you’ll be through by 11:00 pm and ready to jump into bed with a nice little zing of fright. Any earlier, and you’ll be wanting more to fill your plate; any later, and you’ll be snoozing.