Premiering today exclusively on Shudder is A.D. Calvo‘s Sweet Sweet Lonely Girl. A horror hybrid fused from psychosexual thrillers and classic haunted house yarns, Sweet Sweet Lonely Girl is set in 1980s Connecticut, following a naive young woman who finds herself drawn to the darkness in a newfound friend that may just be her doom.
The film centers on Adele (Erin Wilhelmi), the young woman in question, who reluctantly takes a job as a caretaker for her agoraphobic aunt at the behest of her cash-strapped mother. Aunt Dora (Susan Kellerman) may be a strange woman who subsists on sardines and lives in a stuffy old Victorian house, but she’s got money. The thrall of wealth is a recurring theme throughout the film, especially the way that economic hardship can inspire that unscratchable itch for a shinier, more luxurious life and the way we cling to it with desperation once it’s found. Those who have and those who want.
However, even if she is there for the money, Adele is a genial and good-natured girl, quietly performing her menial duties as she tends to her aunt’s needs. But if she is sweet, as the title tells us, she is also very lonely. Isolated in a big old house filled with off-putting trinkets and dolls, not a friend in sight but for a scruffy stray cat she finds on the side of the road. Until she meets Beth (Quinn Shephard), the glamorous, free-wheeling young woman who takes an unexpected interest in Adele and quickly wins her heart.
The young actresses are impeccably cast, and the film is at its best when it focuses on the relationship between Beth and Adele. Beth is a force of nature; alluring, capricious, and imposing, and Adele is some fragile creature caught in her gust, happy to be in the warm air for once, unconcerned with how fast she’ll come crashing down when it’s gone. The film doesn’t have much to say about coming-of-age queerness, this is a different kind of story, but girls’ relationship isn’t disrespectful either. Some may find the destructive nature of their relationship an irksome trope, but it’s a hallmark of the Calvo is working in here, and his approach is centered around playing in the tradition of the queer psychodrama rather than rewriting the playbook. And their interplay is utterly compelling.
Their friendship and subsequent courtship embolden Adele, but they also corrupt her. Bit by bit, piece by piece, Beth empowers and encourages Adele toward tiny little moral infractions until, like the proverbial frog in boiling water, she’s done something horrible without realizing it. We’re never quite sure what Beth’s intentions, if she’s truly taken with the innocent girl with doll eyes as big as the heart she wears on her sleeve or if she’s intentionally leading her to corruption. We just know, either way, nothing good will come from it.
Calvo shoots the film with an admirable straightforwardness, framing clear shots with simple tricks of perception and subtle old-school effects to ratchet up the tension and unease. Retro-styled films are all the rage these days, but Sweet Sweet Lonely Girl is the rare breed that feels less like imitation and more like something plucked from another era. Though the film’s setting in the Reagan-era 80s inspires the themes at play in the narrative, Calvo has a transparent affection for the genre filmmaking of the 70s, and Sweet Sweet Lonely Girl feels at home alongside film’s like Let’s Scare Jessica to Death and Burnt Offerings, with traces of Jean Rolin’s exploitation era soft-lesbian leanings. He doesn’t always capture that magic, but when he does, Calvo creates a hazy, slow-churning slipstream of mystery and sensuality.
Unfortunately, Sweet Sweet Lonely Girl loses its footing in the final act, which steers the film away from the sturdy ground it built as a psychothriller into a much less convincing paranormal riff. I’m all for a tight film, and Calvo keeps it brief at just over 75 minutes, but the final twists and turns feel rushed and at times a bit head-scratching. The shift in narrative feels jarring and the resolution leaves more questions than it answers.
It’s a disappointing turn after such a promising set up, but ultimately, the final misstep doesn’t undermine Calvo’s eye for framing moments of tension or his enticing exploration of how temptation leads even the purest of us astray