FrightFest Halloween film review: Held
The nuances of Awbrey and Johnson8
Anton Bitel | On 21, Oct 2020
Director: Travis Cluff, Chris Lofing
Cast: Jill Awbrey, Bart Johnson, Rez Kempton, Zack Gld, Jener Dasilva, Tessa Munro
Watch Held online in the UK: FrightFest Halloween
Held begins with a young woman, her boyfriend and his friend, all drinking in a car that is parked on a concrete tarmac in the middle of nowhere. It is all going well until the boyfriend announces, “She’s all yours,” and then tells his horrified girlfriend, “Relax , babe – you’re not going anywhere,” as, remotely from the driver’s seat, he closes her window and locks her door to ensure that she is held in place for his friend, sitting in the back with her, to use sexually. The aftermath is thankfully not shown – but what we do see is the prelude to a very particular (if common) kind of rape, perpetrated not by strangers, but by men known to the victim who feel that she is their property to give and take at will.
Many years later, we catch up with an older, worldlier Emma (played by the film’s writer, Jill Awbrey), who has mostly moved on from this harrowing incident in her youth, and has long since been married, if not entirely happily, to a different man, Henry (Bart Johnson). For their ninth wedding anniversary, Henry has arranged a weekend getaway at an isolated rental home with all the mod cons, in the hope that amid such luxurious surroundings, they can together mend some bridges in their relationship and maybe revive a little romance between them. Yet they will quickly discover that there is a third party somewhere on the premises, watching (and filming) their every move, locking them into the secure building, and feeding them moment-by-moment instructions on how to conduct themselves as a wedded couple (with any sign of resistance met by rapid punishment).
“You must obey” becomes the voice’s mantra, although its owner might as well be saying, “Relax, babe – you’re not going anywhere.” For as Mr and Mrs Barrett struggle to make it through a weekend where they are being forced to face some very difficult home truths and to reconfigure the dynamics of their relationship, it becomes clear that the lessons which they are being taught about the meaning of “love, honour and obey” and “to have and to hold” represent a very old-fashioned notion of marriage where the husband is chivalrous, and the wife a chattel. While the locked-down house appears to be a trap as inescapable as patriarchy itself, Emma has once before been bullied by one man into unwelcome terms of submission to another, and this time will not go down without a fight.
Held has none of the supernatural elements of directors Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing’s previous features The Gallows (2015) and its 2019 sequel. It is instead rooted entirely in the horrors of relations between the senses. For like Leigh Janiak’s Honeymoon (2014), Ate de Jong’s Deadly Virtues (2014) and Phillip G. Caroll Jr’s The Honeymoon Phase (2019), Held plays out as a dark allegory of the marital bond. For here, the weekend which Emma and Henry were already hoping would be a blast of marriage therapy for them turns out to come with a sadistic stranger self-appointed in the rôle of therapist, even if his methodology – firm guidance in how a wedded couple should appear, act, eat and “make love”, as well as the direct addressing of past errancy – comes slanted, like the traditions and institutions of marriage itself, very much in favour of the male partner.
As armies of MAGA-hatted men declare their desire for the United States to return to the values of the 1950s, as the 1973 Roe v Wade decision (and women’s right to bodily autonomy which the decision enshrined) are coming under serious threat of being overturned by a Supreme Court stacked with Republican conservatives, and as the coronavirus pandemic has large parts of America under lockdown, Held feels like a film tapping right into the moment, even if its themes of marriage and power are perennial.
Held streamed at FrightFest Halloween 2020 at 6.30pm on 21st October.