Every once in a while you come across a gem that lights a small fire under the horror tropes with which we’ve become comfortable. More often than not in my experience, it’s a movie with flaws – largely due to the the rough edges from budget constraints – which can be forgiven for the risks it’s bold enough to attempt. Artik, the debut by writer-director Tom Botchii Skowronski, is one such film.
Straight-edge mechanic Holton (Chase Williamson, freed from the underreaching smuggness of John Dies at the End) comes across an urchin-like boy (Gavin White) tagging the side wall of his shop with some surprisingly talented graffiti. The boy is near-mute, and gingerly accepts a candy bar before running away. When he returns, the boy shows him some drawings that make him fear for the child’s well-being, and he turns to his counsellor (Matt Mercer), who offers to pay a friendly visit to the boy’s parents (Jerry G. Angelo and the always-engaging Lauren Ashley Carter).
To say things don’t go as planned would be understating it.
What follows is a brisk 70 minutes of haunting, visceral and, at times, beautiful imagery, with carefully curated shots framing unflinching set pieces and envelope-pushing violence. Punctuating the silences are stabs at genuine, old-school tension, with the cat-and-mouse set-ups actually making me hold my breath until the scenes were over.
Elevating the atmosphere are compelling performances all around, from Williamson’s stoic deadpan to Carter’s grotty manic and Angelos’s showier, gentle-voiced, bear-like domestic terroriser, who simultaneously channels a caring patriarch and an unrepentant, delusional Leatherface.
The only negatives are mostly indicative of a tight budget: poor sound mixing and spurts of unpolished dialogue. The film could have benefited from being longer – we are thrown in with these characters and the tone of the third act asks for an emotional payoff that the first two eschewed in favour of experimental atmosphere-building. More of the much-prominent art could have been mined for more meaning or character-building. And that song over the end credits completely destroys the lingering, bittersweet conflict I felt during the closing moments. Despite all this, the movie stays with you, like a cautious message of hope.