Director Christian Schultz released his latest film, Presence, at Panic Fest 2022. A far cry from Schultz’s last feature in terms of genre– a feature documentary centered around the testimonials of a wide range of creative professionals, titled MAKE– Presence is a psychological horror film to a certain extent. This is a world haunted by the looming presence of a force we never quite get the name or gist of.
Presence follows the story of Jennifer (Jenna Lyng Adams) and Samantha (Alexandria DeBerry) at a critical point in their joint career. The two best friends and business partners have stumbled upon a golden investment opportunity at long last for their zipper company/product/patent, which takes the shape of a yacht trip with an unfamiliar businessman who assures them that he knows how to make money. The businessman in question is named David, who is played by Dave Davis, a man Samantha discovers during her brief disappearance, which audiences bear witness to during the opening sequence of the film. We quickly get the impression that things aren’t quite right between our girlboss besties when Jennifer leaves their shared apartment in New York to return home to Louisiana for a while in an attempt to…well, we don’t really know. Until later, that is. Jennifer seems rather distraught about leaving for home, stating that she needs her friend, but Samantha insists that she go, and bring her new very-old necklace with her.
As a viewer, I personally wasn’t convinced of the authenticity of this deep friendship between Jennifer and Samantha. Initially, I was actually under the assumption that perhaps Jennifer’s deep feelings for Sam were more than platonic hence her unhealthy dependence on her. But this theory never quite panned out, especially since once we do finally see the pair in action at sea, they don’t seem to dig very deep beneath the surface. Sam never reveals why she vanished once Jennifer was…resting?…in Lousiana, for instance. Nor does Jennifer really push back for genuine answers. I mean, who else would you air these questions out to about the alien shadow ghost figure haunting your sleep than your alleged best friend and business partner? Also, why doesn’t she ever ask Samantha where the absolutely unsubtle-gifted ancient cursed pendant came from, which Jennifer was offered as a ‘go away’ present?
But hey, maybe Presence just isn’t about the answers so much as it is about the questions (which no one seems to be asking). After all, “humans are strange creatures” as we hear enough times to know that it must mean something.
The opening scene of Jennifer in her Louisiana-based bedroom offered more insight into her character than anything else we see her say or do as the narrative progresses out into open waters. In the vein of contextualizing our troubled protagonist, viewers are offered a glimpse of bedroom walls covered in all sorts of memorabilia. We see an old photograph of a beautiful woman whom we never see again, the illustrations and patent for an array of zipper designs, as well as the classically eerie ‘Meeting of the Mickey Mouse Club’ poster which has been tacked to the wall. Jennifer appears to have a dark and rich inner world that the rest of the world doesn’t always see. And as the old-timey voice she listens to remarks upon peculiar specimens growing in drops of water, disdaining the nature with which “…with infinite complacence, people went to and fro over the earth about their little affairs…” a storm brews outside. The storm blows in a clingy ex-boyfriend from Jennifer’s past as well as a shadow figure of some sort, who will continue to follow our protagonist for the duration of the film. Unfortunately, what we don’t get is any context surrounding whose house this is, why she lives here on her own in addition to having a place in New York, or what this creature really means for her.
Nevertheless, there’s more to the ambiance of that opening scene than I originally assumed. After all, the sentiment of this audio is evoked time and again in the film’s thinly veiled zipper-patenting plotline. Zippers, zippers, zippers as the girls live like billionaires for a bit and struggle (then fail) to keep Jennifer’s night terrors and panic attacks under wraps. In this world of luxury on the high seas, it is ever-apparent that impressions mean something. Although their potential investor and Captain of the yacht, David, doesn’t seem particularly discouraged by these episodes. In fact, he seems to harbor more than a few secrets of his own, including the true nature of what transpired between him and his ex-wife, the namesake of the yacht these three are…doing business…on.
David’s past is quickly forgotten in light of Jennifer’s increasingly violent and dissociative bouts of sleepwalking-possession, however, and his ex-wife Vivian’s presence only comes up again to the extent that we are shown that she was always somehow involved. Ambiguity is not limited to this element of the film alone. Another aspect of the story that is left largely unspoken for to a disappointing extent is the presence itself. This shadow figure that revealed itself during the opening storm! The one that drives Jennifer to commit these unconscious acts of violence! Is it a spirit? An alien, perhaps? An ancient entity tied to the pendant she wears, who acts on behalf of some unknown timeless set of moral principles? And the most important unanswered question of all: Was David the billionaire yacht Captain ever truly interested in the zipper patent? Shame on you, David.
All things considered, the level of craftsmanship that went into the film Presence is undeniable. From the very first scene, the piece’s cinematography evoked a tone that felt as though it hummed with something dark albeit largely undefined. This film is beautiful, on the surface. The scenes are perfectly lit, the scene compositions are interesting and gleam with this quality of polish and luxury, and the cast is full of conventionally lovely faces doing all of the expected things. I only wish that the emotional underbelly of Presence was as fleshed-out and carefully calculated as its surface seemed to be.
REVIEW: ‘Presence’ Falters in the Reflection of Its Polished Surface-Level Horror