It seems like I have been reviewing a lot of films in which very minor plot spoilers could ruin the viewing experience for readers. It makes it very difficult to write a meaningful 500 words if I can’t write about the plot – my review for Kill List was almost ridiculous, given how cryptic I had to be. I’ve tried my best in this review to provide you with as much information as possible, without spoiling the dark heart that is Stained.
Picture this. Isabelle, youthful and beautiful, has moved away from home to open a used bookstore. She spends the majority of her days living alone in her apartment, unless you count her two cats, or working alone in her bookstore, unless you count her cat that lives there. Actually, she has a couple employees, I just wanted to let it be known that she is a cat or two shy of being a full blown crazy cat lady. The book store is bereft of customers and is an allegory for Isabelle’s love life, platonic or romantic, as her only meaningful human contact is over a telephone with her sister Jennifer, whose family adopted Isabelle when she was 12 years old.
Isabelle seems to be on a downward spiral towards crazy catlady-dom, after an uncomfortable encounter with a male acquaintance leaves her rather jarred. However, the next day, James, a man from Isabelle’s past, enters her bookstore, and reenters her life. Isabelle’s joie de vivre returns, but at the same time, the reappearance of this man from her past means that she must confront some memories that are anything but rosy. A more fitting word would be ‘bloody’.
Stained is the independent feature length debut from writer/director Karen Lam, and features a very impressive cast of Tinsel Korey (Isabelle), Sonja Bennett (Jennifer), Tim Fellingham (James), Anna Mae Routledge (Janna), Stephen Lobo (Dave), Stephen Huszar (Rolf) and Steph Song (Chloe). I recognized a number of the actors, a bit of a foreign feeling for me when watching independent cinema, but a welcome one.
I think that Stained has a lot to offer fans of horror films. The acting is well above par for an independent film, Tinsel Korey and Sonja Bennett are particularity good, while the rest of the cast does a great job in their supporting roles. The setting of the used bookstore is a wonderful choice. I think horror filmmakers need to use this setting more often; there are not many other locations that can match the lonely solitude of a used bookstore, and I think library stacks have been done to death. Also, there are a number of effective flashbacks throughout the film, the imagery of which is quite disturbing. Lam has done quite a good job with her debut. Stained is haunting, suspenseful, grotesque and scary. However, the narrative stumbles at times, and as a result, the atmosphere takes a hit.
The use of flashbacks has paid off to provide a creepy atmosphere, but at times can be a bit confusing. Sometimes the flashbacks are used to show Isabelle and James, as they were in the past, but they have just got back together and it can be frustrating differentiating the past from the present. Also, the narrative needed one or two more interesting events in the first two thirds of the film in order to have the viewer truly glued to the screen. It feels like there is a bit of unnecessary bouncing back and forth between the book store and the apartment, which could have been made more meaningful.
Stained certainly has more positives than negatives. It starts out as a very ‘safe’ film – some of the early shots felt a bit like a made for TV movie. However, something very exciting happened as I continued to watch. Lam started to take chances with angles, movement and sound. In particular, a scene in an alleyway is reminiscent of the ugliness and grittiness of a Michael Caine and Sydney Furie beat down scene from The Ipcress File. Also, the last act of the film really feels like expert film making, not an independent movie. I am very eager to see what Lam will do next if she starts her next film with the film making energy on display in the final act of Stained. I could be wrong, the film may have been shot and edited backwards, but watching Stained really felt like watching the maturation of a filmmaker.
I expect big things from Lam in the future.