A little boy’s nightmares, stoked by his parents’ impending divorce, appear to come to life in Shelli Ryan’s skilled tyro feature, “Jake’s Closet.” Despite some debatable issues regarding pic’s point of view and its manipulation of aud expectations — inextricably bound with critical late-on revelations — this suburban horror show that translates familial crisis into zombies living in a bedroom closet maintains a steady dramatic pulse supported by impressive craft. Fests could opt for either midnight or straight-ahead feature slots, and pic’s very in-betweeness makes it a tricky sell for distribs.
A beautifully eerie opening title sequence has Ryan’s elegant camera (with Tom Hejda as the exceptional lenser and Brian Creasy as the good visual effects designer) tracking the course of a firefly as it zooms into the backyard of little Jake’s (Anthony DeMarco) home. Jake prefers playing alone, but his mom Jules (Brooke Bloom) thinks it’s unhealthy and summons obnoxious older kid Dillon (Matthew Josten) to come over and play.
Bad idea: Dillon, fascinated by the gory sight of a disemboweled rabbit in the backyard, tells Jake it was killed by a zombie. He then shows Jake a website roster of dos and don’ts for handling and quelling zombies, which the little guy takes as gospel.
Ryan’s script may pigeon-hole adults as scheming (Dillon’s pushy mom Ruth, played by Monette Magrath), aloof (real estate agent Sam, thesped by Ben Bode) or worse (creepy hag neighbor Mrs. Bender, portrayed by Barbara Gruen), but it discreetly establishes the decayed marriage between Jules and Peter (Sean Bridgers) in the bits and pieces of incident that precisely reflect the way a child would experience it.
Maintaining Jake’s p.o.v. is a constant source of cinematic fascination in “Jake’s Closet,” which occasionally adopts the lad’s optical perspective, but most significantly perpetuates a mood close to Jake’s emotional temperament.
As his feverish belief grows that a zombie is actually living in his closet — and desperately trying to get out — pic makes it seem so real that it eventually looks as if the zombie really is lumbering about the house. In theory, this should work; in practice, strategy sets up some moments which blatantly toy with aud perceptions.
The risk pic takes in placing so much dramatic responsibility on young DeMarco is well rewarded, as this is one fine child performance, dominating the perfs of the adults around him.
Production is extremely handsome, displaying a high level of pro craft in every department, from Hejda’s autumnal lensing to Mark Plutynski’s production design that turns Jake’s home–from which pic never departs — into an all-encompassing world.