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Gone girl: The wicked woods of Winston-Salem

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Gone girl: The wicked woods of Winston-Salem
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Writer/director John Mathis, a 2017 graduate of the UNCSA School of Filmmaking, returned to his collegiate stomping grounds to make Where’s Rose, an imaginative and even ingenious psycho-shocker. In short, he’s scared up a winner. At the very least, and it’s much more than that, Where’s Rose is a great calling card for Mathis.

Ty Simpkins, doubling as a first-time producer, stars as Eric Daniels, a handsome and driven high-school quarterback recently accepted to college on an athletic scholarship. This is cause for celebration, with the solitary exception of sensitive little sister Rose (Skyler Elyse Philpot), who’s worried she’ll be lonely without big brother around.

One evening, while Eric’s classmate Jessica (Anneliese Judge) is babysitting, Rose mysteriously vanishes. The next day, just as mysteriously, Rose reappears, seemingly none the worse for wear and not necessarily traumatized. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief except Eric, who is convinced that what emerged from the woods wasn’t Rose. 

As Eric becomes more obsessed with Rose’s “true” identity, their parents (Kathy Searle and Nick Basta) become more concerned with his increasingly erratic behavior. Even Jessica seems traumatized by the experience, for reasons that only become clear at the climax.

Filmed on location in Winston-Salem, Where’s Rose is a thoroughly polished piece of work. The genre trappings are present, but what elevates the narrative is the complexity of its principal characters, and although the film fits squarely in the realm of horror, it’s played completely straight. There may be a few references to other films (and filmmakers), but it’s devoid — appropriately — of humor.            

There is, inevitably, a “Big Reveal” — and it’s very big indeed, shedding an entirely new light on everything that has occurred, but without diminishing or trivializing it. Actually, it enhances what has gone on before, and in a way, it’s even more horrifying as a result. Mathis evinces a cool, controlled confidence throughout, never belaboring or protracting the storyline. Where’s Rose is tight and trim, running a sharp 83 minutes, and there’s nary a wasted moment.

The film benefits immeasurably from its principal performances. Philpot is alternately sweet and spooky as the titular Rose, and Judge proves to be a real discovery in her feature debut, conveying guilt and pain in a subtle but palpable fashion. Simpkins, no stranger to the genre having appeared in the Insidious franchise (the fifth film is due for release next year), is at the top of his game here. His portrayal of Eric is both cunning, credible, and economically rendered. He neither overplays nor underplays the role, and the result is one of the best performances of his career to date.  

— Where’s Rose opens Friday at Marketplace Cinemas, 2095 Peters Creek Parkway, Winston-Salem.

See Mark Burger’s reviews of current movies on © 2020, Mark Burger.

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