There’s a storied horror tradition of babysitters in peril. Most famously there’s the inattentive babysitter who discovers, to her horror, that the calls are coming from inside the house in When A Stranger Calls (1979 version. We don’t speak of the 2006 remake). There are countless others.
What makes Audrey Cummings’ feature directorial debut Berkshire County significant is its contemporary twist. Despite the fact that the film was made waaaay back in 2014 and then shopped around the festival circuit for several years, it still manages to feel contemporary and relevant thanks to its canny inversion of subgenre tropes.
We barely meet Kylie Winters (Alysa King) at a Halloween party before she’s embroiled in a slut shaming video scandal involving local douchebag Marcus (Aaron Chartrand). Naturally Marcus is exempt from shame, while Kylie is harassed both in-person and online. Following a less than supportive conversation with her mother, Kylie is cast out for the night to the country to babysit for a wealthy family in the middle of nowhere, Berkshire County.
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The house is a character unto itself: a bizarre maze of circular rooms, stained glass and bannisters, made all the creepier by the fact that it is nearly empty save for packing boxes. Barely a moment passes before Kylie is accosted by a trio of villains wearing pig masks and from there Berkshire County hits the gas pedal and never eases off. The remainder of the film is a cat and mouse game that mirrors Kylie‘s earlier game of hide and seek with the kids; in short order the two adults have penetrated the house, brandishing knives they’re not afraid to use.
What separates Berkshire County from other home invasion/slasher films are Kylie‘s imperfections. While the opening scenes make it clear that she was pressured into the carnal act that ruins her reputation, she’s slightly tempestuous and even standoffish when she interacts with the kids. When the violence begins, Kylie is patently human: she cries, she hides, she even plans to run away and abandon the kids until Roberta (Samora Smallwood), the police operator on the phone, steers her back towards Final Girl status. Even then, it takes extreme measures – an inversion of the tropes of the genre – to finally prompt Kylie to take control of her own agency.
Unfortunately the end of the film only pays off half of Kylie‘s journey. Rather than circle back to confront the stupidity and judgemental nature of the slut shaming that undermined her confidence, Berkshire County opts for an out of nowhere sequel set-up that doesn’t feel earned or justified. If Cummings hadn’t clarified at the screening that she made the film with her own money, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine the denouement as an ill-advised studio note.
Thankfully so much of the rest of the film works. Kylie‘s journey from meek to assertive is familiar, but well-executed, the action is exceedingly well shot by Cummings and the house remains a bizarre visual marvel throughout. When the bodies start to fall and the blood begins to flow, Berkshire County delivers the horror. What audiences may not expect is the sly feminist critique hidden among the pig masks, circular rooms and home invasion.