There’s a cruel twist of Hollywood fate; once an actor scores a glorious success with a project lauded by critics and audiences alike, they seem destined to follow-up with an absolute trash fire of a film. Often, this is because terrible movies get shelved until their talent is topical enough to finagle a release. Sometimes it’s just bad luck. Whatever the reason, “Shut In” is unique in its awfulness, being the FUBAR follow-up for not one but three of its stars.
Coming off a string of critically heralded features including Noah Baumbach’s barbed comedy “While We’re Young,” the Bill Murray-fronted dramedy “St. Vincent,” and the Oscar-winning drama “Birdman,” Naomi Watts headlines “Shut In” as Mary Portman, a widowed child psychologist who lives deep in rural Maine, where she cares for her 18-year-old stepson (“Stranger Things” Charlie Heaton) who was recently completely paralyzed by a horrible car crash. Their quiet life of isolation is disrupted when a deaf boy with behavioral issues (“Room” standout Jacob Tremblay) goes missing on their property. When strange things start happening in her home, this spooked stepmom worries the ghost of the probably dead deaf kid is out to get her and her teen son.
With a story that focuses on mother protecting her son against a monster with a psychological thriller twist, “Shut In” is like “The Babadook,” except lame, and never remotely scary. I marveled looking over director Farren Blackburn’s past credits, which boast suspense-fueled series like “Doctor Who,” “Daredevil” and “Luther,” because “suspenseful” is the last word I’d consider applying to this so-called thriller. From the start, Christina Hodson’s script leans hard on Lifetime Channel movie tropes, begging for audience sympathy by introducing a loving family thrown violently into melodramatic trauma. Then we’re rushed headlong into Mary’s loneliness, guilt and despair, as she monologues about the burden of caring for her helpless stepson, and instantly clings to the adorable Tremblay as a means of finding purpose in her own life while saving his. Sloppy storytelling that relies on sentimentality more than sense gives way to a horror story that is painfully predictable. If you think you’ve figured out the twist ten minutes in, you’re right. Free yourself from the banality of “Shut In” and do literally anything else with your time.
For those who choose to stick around, you’ll be rewarded only with lazy scares, blatant plotting cheats, and a prolonged finale that rejects tension in favor of tedium. Music won’t build anxiety to a shocking reveal or haunting imagery. Instead, Blackburn offers cue-less jump scares like a raccoon springing out from some trash cans, and futilely tries to get audiences to fear one of Hollywood’s most adorable child stars. Playing Mary’s mentor, Oliver Platt, always a welcomed and charismatic presence even though he’s never met a terrible script her didn’t like, drops by for exposition dumps and to dismiss the harried heroine’s fears as craziness. Also there’s a half-hearted romance subplot with a burly would-be suitor, because a horror-thriller about a reclusive widow still demands a decent body count.
Props to the cast, they take “Shut In”s determinedly stupid story very seriously, giving their all in terrified close-ups and requisite chase scenes. But not even a two-time Academy Award-nominated actress, two of young Hollywood’s rising stars, and Platt’s undeniable charms can make “Shut In” anything better than awful. A tawdry concept tacks on subpar subplots and flashy phrases like “sleep parasomnia” to pad out a plot that’d have been best suited to a lean 22-minute anthology series like “Tales from the Crypt” or “The Twilight Zone.” There, we’d be spared the fat and psychobabble. And if you figured out the finale twist 10-minutes in, at least the ep’s half-way through, and you’re not gnashing your teeth through an hour and a half more of nonsense and non-scares.
“Shut In” is in theaters now.