Director: Samuel J Punto
Writer: Samuel J Punto & Charys Schuler
Cast: Jeff Book, Doug Richardson, Charys Schuler, Samuel J Punto
Running time: 16mins
Movie by movie, Samuel J Punto is proving himself to be an enjoyably unpredictable filmmaker. After the avant-garde gang warfare and coded social commentary of Verzerrung, his previous entry to Indy Film Library, I would never have guessed his next move would be a grizzly homage to the video-nasty era.
On the surface, then, The Holding Room is lightyears away from the strange, and opaque society that was conjured up by that earlier outing. That is not to say there are no threads running between the two productions, though.
Set, as the title suggests, in the interrogation wing of a police station, the story follows Detective Mike Hamartia (Jeff Book) as he attempts to piece together the fragmented case of John Doe (Samuel J Punto) – a serial killer, now in custody, who has apparently materialised out of thin air. Once again, this sees Punto tackle themes surrounding anonymity and violence.
The most effective perpetrators of individualised repeat violence are the ‘nobodies’ of the world, without previous records. At the same time, many of those who perpetuate cycles of violence are emboldened by this: in Verzerrung, like so many internet bullies, the characters felt comfortable in committing hideous acts of violence while living behind white masks; in The Holding Room, John Doe is aware that having flown under the radar through his short life, tracking him down is essentially impossible.
Detective Hamartia comes up against a brick wall when trying to determine why the silent Doe committed a string of brutal murders – clubbing multiple people to death with a baseball bat – before turning himself in. Doe moved between seemingly random locations, did not have a ‘type’ of victim, and had never committed any offense that had led to his finger-prints, DNA or photograph being in police databases.
Frustrated, the investigator calls in Dr Sarah Birch (Charys Schuler) to profile the killer, while berating Detective Frank Sutter (Doug Richardson) into brainstorming explanations. Ultimately, there is no satisfactory conclusion to be reached. Without any previous data, everything they come up with – from possible childhood abuse, to the remote possibility Doe is a hitman, and had his record erased by an informant – is little more than idle speculation, killing time before the FBI take the case over.
Beyond that, a different commonality can be found when regarding the cinematography. Punto again favours physical media to his credit. Moving on from the Super 8 of his previous work, here the action is captured on 16mm, and Super VHS.
In the story’s present day, the grainy 16mm picks up the coloured lighting of the detectives’ office beautifully – sickly yellow light bouncing off the shining dome of Detective Hamartia’s head as he obsesses over an unsolvable case, while a calm blue shade surrounds Dr Birch, as she tries to calm him down. But the imagery really comes into its own during the SVHS sequences portraying the disturbing exploits of John Doe. For moments, some of this footage – for example, a woman seemingly dancing with a vacuum-cleaner while listening to the radio – takes on a chilling resemblance to the home videos often exhibited in true crime shows, showing killers and victims apparently happy just weeks before some unspeakable horror occurred. At the same time, other shots hark back to the days of VHS horror, and the vicious features the establishment tried to censor. In particular, one fantastically constructed image where Doe’s silhouette is outlined by a car’s headlights as snow falls from the blackened heavens is heavily evocative of that era – and fills us with dread when we sense what that means is soon to come.
This is not to say the film nails everything, though. For all the areas where Punto might have been able to carry over successful traits from a different genre, there are unavoidable differences he has had to tackle anew, and it is in these that the film falls a little short.
For example, while the choice of analogue filming equipment was already in his wheelhouse, and also enabled him to evoke the feel of a video nasty, it is not a feeling the story lives up to in a material sense. For all the anticipation of something nasty being on the horizon, the action is decidedly PG. Doe’s bat never makes contact with anyone on camera, while all the blood we see is (what looks suspiciously like ketchup) splodged onto a car’s light. It’s a little underwhelming, considering the territory we have been primed for – and when moving from experimental to traditional narrative, it is worth bearing in mind that audiences expect a little less vaguery, and a little more payoff.
At the same time, branching off into this kind of story means Punto has had to contend with a kind of acting that did not factor in the silent Verzerrung. The actors are each competent and clear in the delivery of their lines, each capable of emoting to reasonable degrees, and also conveying some form of rapport with their colleagues. But even so, everything comes across as a little sterile in their interactions. The players are very visibly delivering written lines, waiting for their counterparts to finish, before they begin. They do not speak over each other, cut each other off, or snap in response; despite apparently being increasingly frustrated by the scenario. It seems that more coaching was required for this, to inject a little more bite into the dialogue, make it feel like a back-and-forth between colleagues, trying to push each other to do better, but struggling to maintain respect.
Meanwhile, the blocking of the conversation needs a little TLC. Whether it was Punto, or director of photography Marwan El Mozayen who was left to this, they need to be more mindful with how they show us where everyone is. With three people speaking at once, foregrounding shots are extremely important, in order to remind us who a character is speaking to when they face a certain way. However, when there is a wide shot, often only Book and Richardson appear, meaning that when Schuler interjects in closeup form, we feel surprised, unsure of who she is addressing, and to what end. Another simple tactic filmmakers use to help with this is to shoot the speaking character’s close-up from over the shoulder of the character they are addressing – but these shots are also far too rare.
With that being said, there is still a lot to be positive about here. Crime films often want to explain everything away in a way that gives us satisfying closure, and puts their horrors back in the box. But Punto and Schuler’s script resists that urge. The lack of closure that the film’s ending provides is disturbing – in a way that suggests perhaps sometimes there is no understanding the random acts of an individual, and therefore no way to prevent them from happening again.
Thematically and technically, Punto is broadly onto something, even if it isn’t fully realised yet. There are glimpses of moments, moods and ideas here which, if developed further, could yield something unique and unnerving.
It is all too easy for a filmmaker to get stuck in a rut early in their career, churning out variants of safe mediocrity for the sake of building a show reel at any cost. It is far rarer to see someone take their time, and try their hand at something new each time despite the risk of coming up short – to aspire to be a Kubrick rather than a Michael Bay. That alone should see Punto commended at just 18, and it is genuinely intriguing to see the direction he will go in next.