Having the opportunity to watch and review spooky films is a great honor and a privilege. I don’t take it lightly or for granted, but sometimes you get some real stinkers. First-time directors working with supernatural horror rarely are worth the ninety minutes or so of runtime. So, saying that my expectations were low before watching Astral this weekend would be an understatement. You see, I had never heard of Chris Mul before checking out this film, and I can say with a fair sense of certainty that none of you had either. After watching the film, however, I think all of that is going to change.
Frank Dillane (Fear the Walking Dead) plays Alex, a college student (and owner of handsomeness) who is intrigued by a lecture his professor gives on astral projection. His mother killed herself when he was a boy, but he has only recently learned the circumstances surrounding her death. During this lecture, he decides that he is going to try to astral-project himself into another dimension so that he can find his mom. With help from his skeptical friends, Alex uses his webcam to record his projection sessions. What transpires is some interesting evidence that he actually was able to leave his body and influence the environment around him. Unfortunately for Alex and his friends, the astral door that he opened works both ways, and his world is soon inhabited by shadow people and something much, much worse.
“Repeat after me: I am at total peace. I am connected to all that exists.”
Astral marks Chris Mul’s full-length feature debut, but that doesn’t mean he is a rookie. He has a ton of experience in shorts, and that experience shows. This film is absolutely gorgeous, filled with rich textures and dark corners. The camera takes in the beautiful school setting and dances across ominous gargoyles and stone facades. During Alex’s projection sequences, we are shown a fog-like dream version of his childlike home. The camera sees his mother’s feet as they ascend the stairs to her death, and it follows down the hallway to something sitting with its back to us. It’s waiting, it’s hungry. It’s one of the most chilling shots I’ve seen this year, and it isn’t the last incredible scare you’ll have during Astral.
The film was produced quickly and cheaply, (According to IMDB trivia it was shot in only 12 days) but you can’t really tell while watching. It looks great, the acting is spot-on, and the “creature” design is better than what a lot of big-budget features give us. How this is able to work is in the script. Chris Mul, who wrote the film with Michael Mul, delivered us a tight story that worked well within the confines of budget and production time. The characters were believable, the story was interesting, and the creepiness was real.
“I am empowered to travel wherever it is I wish to go.”
Where the film fell a little short for me was in the fruition of the conflict. We spend all but about ten minutes leading up to a final confrontation between Alex and his demons. These building moments are enjoyable, and definitely create an enjoyable world to inhabit, but the payoff just isn’t enough to complete the story. This may have been budgetary, but with the amount of chilling imagery we were given throughout the story, I feel like it was more an issue with the Mul’s attempt to distance themselves from other similar films like Insidious or Flatliners. I commend them from trying to tell a different type of story, one that is more about the journey and not just the destination, but the film wasn’t able to hold up its end of that bargain.
Astral is an intriguing film. It starts down some interesting paths, including the mythology behind astral projection and the religious and scientific implications of its existence. It started to take us down a road exploring the grief associated with losing a loved one and the danger that we might put ourselves in to see them again, but then it kind of stopped before we could really get going. I want to see a continuation of Astral where we really dive into Alex’s motivations and his journey to find his mother again. That is the story I wanted to see. Instead, he gives up on his attempts after a few sessions and a vision of a shadow person. That didn’t feel true to me. If something were to ever happen to my son, I know for a fact that I would burn the world to ashes to be with him again. I would become best friends with every demon and shadow on every plane of existence just to hear his laugh one more time. Alex’s story is so interesting, I just wanted more of it.
“I will be protected mentally, physically and spiritually.”
Does that make Astral a bad film or not worth a watch? Hell no! I enjoyed every second of this story and would love to revisit it. Chris Mul has a ton of talent, and Astral shows it off in spades. I have no doubt that he has a bright future in the horror genre and would love to see what he can do with a bigger budget and a little more time. Even with those restraints, Astral is a tight story about loss, the journey to regain our lives and the dark things that are waiting for us on the other side. It has some incredibly chilling moments and it makes us think about what exactly we would do to reunite with those we love. It’s worth the price of admission for the creature design alone, but the rest of the film holds up and is a perfect spooky movie for this weekend.
Astral will be available to rent on-demand starting this Friday, November 23rd. After you’ve watched it, hit us up on Twitter, Reddit, or Facebook and let us know what you thought of the film. While you’re at it, go ahead and bookmark our homepage at Nightmare on Film Street so you can stay up-to-date on all the hottest horror news, reviews and retrospectives the internet has to offer.