There is an endearingly throwback vibe to Pete Ohs’ “Jethica,” a deadpan supernatural dramedy that lasts less than 70 minutes, but feels animated by a host of ghosts, not just of individual movies, but of entire filmmaking movements past. In particular, the restrictions of shooting in a pandemic seem to have liberated some of the gonzo spirit of an early-90s microbudget indie, the kind that happened when a gang of friends, armed with little more than enthusiasm and weapons-grade cinephilia, maxed out their credit cards on a couple of weeks in the desert and came back with sunburn on their noses and an inspired riff on a genre or six in the can.
But if the mix of dead-serious themes and playful, why-the-hell-not approach gives off a youthful, almost film-studenty energy, the actual craft is well above amateur-level. Ohs wears well the hats of director, editor and co-writer (alongside the entire cast of four who also get script credit), but especially as cinematographer, he does a sterling job of maximizing a doubtless threadbare budget. Not only does the photography make good use of the free, enormous New Mexico skies that hover over the central location — a trailer in the middle of an arid, windy nowhere — but the handheld camera finds unusual compositions and delivers ingenious genre homages (an “Evil Dead”-style low-to-the-ground tracking shot gets a workout early on) that make a sparse, brief movie feel rich with mischief and film lore.
In the beginning, it’s a neo-noir: a femme relating the story of becoming fatale. Elena (an excellent, unflappable Callie Hernandez) tells an unseen one-night stand in the backseat of his car about that time she killed a guy. As she blows languid plumes of post-coital cigarette smoke through the open window, we spin back to see that story unfold. It is a supernatural horror with a feminist undertow initiated when Elena, hiding out in her dead grandmother’s remote trailer after a tragic accident, runs into her estranged friend Jessica (Ashley Denise Robinson) at a gas station. Elena, lonely perhaps, after all this time tending to her guilt in solitude, is friendly. Jessica, just passing through in a car with multiple air fresheners dangling from the rearview, is wary, and refuses Elena’s invitation back to the trailer.
We stay with Jessica as she drives away, changes her mind and doubles back. The women share halting confidences over cups of coffee in the trailer kitchen, and Jessica reveals she’s fleeing her stalker, Kevin (Will Madden). His attentions became so threatening she moved from L.A. to Santa Fe, and when he tracked her down there, she took off again. But the following day when they spot a shambling figure who looks a lot like Kevin, Jessica dismisses it: “Every tall, skinny, bald, white guy looks like my stalker.” Then the man appears at the trailer, ranting and calling her name (his slight lisp giving rise to the film’s title). Jessica knows it can’t actually be Kevin, according to the laws of nature. Elena knows those laws do not quite apply here on her mystic grandmother’s land.
John Bowers’ score is a lo-fi pleasure, with its five-note piano motif and its rubbery thrum giving off a very Carpenter vibe. And Danny Madden’s clever, echoey sound design is also evocatively creepy (and particularly nightmarish, given Kevin’s habit of endlessly calling out to the object of his obsession, for those of us who happen to be called Jessica). But having set up the horror quite impeccably, Ohs makes the daring choice to switch into a more overtly comic register, albeit played with a straight face, before ending on a strangely touching note of closure and something akin to redemption.
There’s gentle subversion in the man being the ranting hysteric while the two female characters are terse, practical and stoic, with their reconnecting-high-school-buddies dynamic, and the solidarity that can develop between traumatized women remaining nicely understated. Kevin’s deranged monologues, that pour forth in a torrent that veers from protestations of undying adoration to dangerously unhinged, entitled recrimination are both frighteningly recognizable as a vocalized version of a stalker’s manifesto, and also very funny, as delivered by Madden, negotiating the corkscrew turns of his character’s untrammeled psychology.
This tricky tonal balance makes what ought to be a mere 69-minute doodle, shot to pass the time during a borderline surreal real-life moment, into a tiny triumph of low-budget ingenuity, and a novel take on survivorship that pivots on a woman finally confronting her harasser, and actually getting him to shut up and listen. In a film featuring ghosts and mystical rituals and afterlife revelations, it’s the most fantastical, least plausible moment of all, but “Jethica” proves there can be quite some satisfaction in witnessing a wishful-thinking scenario play out to the end — and beyond.