Attempting to etch an atmospheric tale of possession in the big city, writer-helmer Ian Merrick makes the usual would-be-thriller missteps in “The Sculptress.” Overlong San Francisco-set indie, while good to look at, is devoid of psychological depth or credibility, and further marred by weak, often risible performances. Opening today in limited release, pic won’t carve out much of a theatrical profile but may scare up some receipts on video.
Katie Wright stars as Sarah, virginal English student at an S.F. art institute. While Sarah navigates a reluctant first date with a fellow student (Allen Cutler) in romantic Sausalito, her psychotic next-door neighbor, Dobie (Jeff Fahey, in overdrive), trawls the Tenderloin in one of his many disguises. A failed actor, Dobie is obsessed with stripper Sylvie (Emmanuelle Vaugier), who supplements her Lusty Lady earnings by modeling for classes at the institute.
Between much expository dialogue, studded with pronouncements about Art by Sarah’s beret-wearing sculpture instructor (Patrick Bauchau), Dobie cuts a bloody swath through the metropolis and our heroine loses control over her sculpting. She’s increasingly haunted by gargoyles and phallic forms, and when she creates a bust of Sylvie, whom she’s never met, the stripper winds up dead. As the plot tries to thicken, Professor Giraud becomes Sarah’s confidant and love interest, and conducts laughably elementary “research” into evil doings.
From candlelit churches to tarot-reading psychics, wind-blown curtains, stormy nights and bloody daggers, thriller cliches abound, to little emotional effect. Whether he’s pretending to be a demented peep-show patron, a German baron or a priest preoccupied with fellatio, Fahey’s Dobie is ridiculous rather than chilling. None of the characters rings true: The wide range of indeterminate accents come and go; perfs, whether too mild (Wright, Cutler, Bauchau) or over the top (Fahey, Vaugier, Vivis Colombetti), fall flat.
Story’s situations don’t invite viewer involvement, either. After the hysterical post-trance warning of storefront fortuneteller Madame Cleo (Colombetti) to Sarah — “Leave San Francisco before you get killed!” — the fleeing protag finds time for that age-old victim’s mistake and does a little sleuthing in the villain’s apartment. By then, auds probably won’t care whether she gets out alive.
Merrick and d.p. David Scardina do, however, offer some nice visuals in the picturesque S.F. locations, particularly during the silly climactic sequence by the Golden Gate Bridge. Musical soundtrack is intermittently effective.