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Heartbreaking horror, played close to the bone

For much of its 99-minute running time, "Lovely Molly" brings heartbreaking psychological horror to the world of the 99 percent. This story of a young wife (Gretchen Lodge) who goes crazy or is possessed by a demon — or both — takes place in an America of limited opportunities.

It's a haunted-house movie with a contemporary existential charge. Molly does cleaning work in a mall and marries Tim (Johnny Lewis), a truck driver who stays away for days on end. They move into her late parents' house — a rambling stone construction in the middle of a desolate nowhere — because she and her devoted sister, Hannah (Alexandra Holden), couldn't sell it for a decent price and living there is better than tossing out rent.

Not even sisterhood is powerful in this movie. Hannah knows there's something sinister about her sibling's return to the place where they grew up. But Hannah has limited insight and few practical or imaginative resources. It doesn't take much prompting for her to share some weed with her sister, though Molly is a recovering drug addict. And when Molly starts spiraling into some kind of madness, Tim can think of nothing better to do than making a rare visit to church on Sunday, as if simply being in a house of worship can scare any demons away.

Molly's stay at a psychiatric hospital in a prior breakdown was so traumatic that she begs Hannah not to send her there again. The most she'll do is take some sleeping pills. For her, there really is no exit.

The director, Eduardo Sanchez, a Frederick resident who shot the film in Hagerstown, kicked off the found-footage craze with "The Blair Witch Project" 13 years ago. He starts "Lovely Molly" with a piece of Molly's video diary that cues up the craziness that lies ahead. But the film doesn't unfold entirely from Molly's point of view. Her perspective is one part of Sanchez's confident hand-held storytelling. He uses video from a source that isn't clear until the climax, and one startling voyeuristic bit of mall surveillance. What unifies it all is Sanchez's gift for offhand portraiture. He captures his actors at their most spontaneous — and this unfussy realism makes the story's chills all the more insidious.

The images in this movie have the same semi-opaque pull as the pictures in a stranger's photo album. When Molly leafs through a family scrapbook, the scene is melancholy and portentous. You put together the snapshots' hidden connections in your head; you try to figure out the secrets behind them. You almost immediately decipher what Molly means when she says, "He isn't dead," and who "he" is and why "he" terrifies her. But some visual and verbal motifs remain out of reach, even after the movie ends. Like the antiheroine, audiences get caught in unfathomable circumstances.

The film is strongest when it skates along the edge of ambiguity. How trustworthy can Molly be after she pulls her old drug paraphernalia from the back of a raggedy teddy bear? But how can a dangerous ghost reside only in Molly's head when the house starts to stink for no apparent reason?

The stone family manse is a rancid beauty. It's picturesque when a glaring sun wipes out its grime and wear, yet fetid inside and forbidding at night. Sanchez makes you shudder at its bleakness and its creaks and cries and whispers.

But what magnetizes the movie is the tremulous eloquence of the woman at its core. Lodge delivers a tough, fearless performance. If Molly were a shrinking violet, the whole film would be unbearable. Lodge gives her a tinge of deadly nightshade. She suffuses Molly's pathos with anger and desperation, and goes all the way with her transformation from girl next door to succubus.

It's unfortunate that Sanchez, in the final act, turns the screws on the audience with an actual screwdriver. Far less graphic or gimmicky than most post-"Saw" horror films, "Lovely Molly" didn't need its splashes of gore and gotcha ending to be gripping. But it may strike a chord with audiences who aren't hard-core horror fans anyway. In "Lovely Molly," a war against women is waged even in the great beyond.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

Lovely Molly

MPAA Rating: R (for strong disturbing violence and grisly images, some graphic sexual content and nudity, drug use and language) Running Time: 99 minutes

Opens: Friday

Three stars

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