Movie ghosts usually represent something more than just specters from the beyond. You don’t have to look too far into the recent past to find examples of spooky phantoms that represent some kind of real-world anxiety: grief (“The Babadook”), burgeoning sexuality (“It Follows”) and franchises built on justice meted out by revenge-seeking spirits. In that context, Harrison Atkins’ “Lace Crater” is out of sync with its times, since it takes the existence of an undead corporeal entity at face value.
Here, that ambiguous entity visits Ruth (Lindsay Burdge), a recently single woman on a Hamptons vacation with a cadre of supportive friends. On a drug-laced evening in upstate New York, Ruth retreats to her room in the guest cottage, which a member of the group jokes is haunted. When a creaking door yields a mysterious, soft-spoken figure clad in burlap sacks, Ruth’s initial fright gives way to an eerie sense of understanding.
The interaction between Ruth and “Michael” (Peter Vack) quickly progresses from spectral appearance to cross-mortality heart-to-heart to intimate evening. There are rough edges (both in the digital manipulation of their passionate connection and Michael’s lo-fi popping around the room), but Atkins stages this haunt-cute with a surprising level of sincerity.
Beyond the normal morning-after awkwardness around her vacation buddies (with Michael nowhere to be found), Ruth’s body begins to rebel against her. Vomiting spells lead to mysterious goops of various kinds and as the physical aftermath of her night with Michael escalates; Ruth also gets drawn into a trivial love triangle with two of the other Hamptons attendees.
With these unexpected consequences of Ruth’s tryst spiraling out of control, the film gets pulled in as many directions as she does. After her first portentous visit to the doctor, much of “Lace Crater” suffers from a misjudged seesawing between simplicity and cacophony. In most senses (score, sound design and most of the supporting performances), the film frequently finds itself leaning on the least compelling side.
Ruth’s struggles with the overnight symptoms of whatever might be happening to her is nicely executed body horror. But the film betrays those tiny moments of effective simplicity when they’re placed under layers of artificial dread.
The handheld camerawork occasionally gives the film a haunted feel, hovering around the group conversations before Michael’s introduced. Atkins and DP Gideon de Villiers play with focus as the camera travels from speaker to speaker. But over time, this literal blurring of these conversations feels more like an aesthetic shortcut than a necessary connection to Ruth’s psychological state.
Rather than steer into the absurdity of Ruth’s ordeal or maintain a removed distance, “Lace Crater” tries to do both simultaneously. Once Ruth starts to self-diagnose herself via Google search, the film’s premise is more confusing than terrifying — but as the mysterious oozing intensifies, so does the electronic drone, hammering that ominous feeling home.
And the limp web of post-Hamptons romantic entanglements draws in a handful of characters who seem to exist only as foils to Ruth’s impending breakdown. Ruth’s casual dinner meet-up with her ex (Joe Swanberg) and bedside talks with wavering friend Claudette (Jennifer Kim) are clouded by a person-to-person disconnect that stalls any significant understanding of anyone involved.
By the time Atkins returns to elements that work best, “Lace Crater” feels muddled. An enigmatic ending is befitting of Ruth’s tumultuous journey, but the diversions in the winding road leading back dilute most of its power. It’s a story that has its share of unnerving sequences, but like its pivotal character, it feels stuck between two worlds.
“Lace Crater” opens in New York and on FlixFling VOD on July 29, in Los Angeles on August 5th and additional cities to follow.