Christopher Lawrence Chapman’s debut feature, Inoperable, is a horror film about a 30-year-old woman struggling to escape from a half-deserted hospital while “the T-rex of hurricanes” sweeps overhead. The opening titles are like a scratchy throwback to David Fincher’s “Se7en,” and the end credits splash the screen with comic book text. Neither bookend is relevant to the fussy plotting and dour tone in-between.
Amy (Danielle Harris, “Havenhurst”) is the one locked in the facility with nothing but a flip-phone and some murderous medical staff for company, doomed to re-live the same few minutes over and over again. “Groundhog Day” meets “28 Days Later”? You wish.
Amy befriends a cop called Ryan (Jeff Denton, “ClownTown”) and a would-be model named Jen (Katie Keene, “In the Company of Strangers”). They are locked in time loops, also. We get a general sense that the characters need to escape the building. Unfortunately, this is a mission infuriatingly complicated by the always-changing internal rules of the narrative.
Here I must consult my notes. The duration of each time loop is narrowing as the storm passes. Sometimes the hospital staff can see Amy and sometimes she’s invisible. She is told by Ryan that she can’t die here, only to be later told that she needs to live or it’s all over; and yet somewhere in between I got the impression that they all need to escape in order for the curse to be lifted.
Moreover, between each time loop is a snippet of Amy in her car before the crash. And boy, if I had to see Amy making the same failed call to the police one more time then I would be the one losing my mind.
Sometimes Ryan and Jen are confident and resourceful and other times they’re nervous wrecks. One minute Jen is comforting Amy; the next, she’s a panicked mess. 45 minutes in and Amy still doesn’t have a clue what’s going on. I know just how she feels. The inconsistencies of character can at least be explained by the film’s very obvious twist. Actually, there are two twists, both long-windedly wheeled out at the end.
The musician Prince once opined that there’s joy in repetition — but not here. The time loop concept should be all about the little changing details, to keep us engaged. More broadly, it’s about the protagonist gradually wielding absolute control through learning. Inoperable attempts to combine this arc with a descent into madness, and the result is a car crash indeed.
Remember how Shane Carruth’s “Primer” was compellingly confusing because it willfully wrapped itself in the maddening twine of time logic? Inoperable, by comparison, locks itself in the chains of its own conflicting rules. Its wounds are self-inflicted, and it’s no fun watching it do it to itself. Its incessant sense of mystery consistently obscures the stakes and obstructs the drama.
On the horror front, it’s not scary at all either, although there is some decent gore. Most horrifying of all is the dialogue, much of the worst of which is delivered by one of the better actors, Denton: “I’ve died over six hundred times, and each time it’s more horrific!” Which sounds funny, in a hokey kind of way, but Chapman never nails the comic tone or lightness of touch that could make such words fly.
Other performances range from bad to shockingly bad. “No! No! No!” cries Amy as she shakes her head at the camera. It’s a moment that epitomizes the film’s depiction of madness, which is dated at best and risible at worst. Chapman and producer-cinematographer Giorgio Daveed throw in all the loony bin clichés — as we know, Dutch angles equals crazy. There’s an amusingly bad moment when Amy is supposedly sliding around the hospital, out of control — and then she steps off the trolley and she’s five inches shorter. It must be said, though, that the use of Steadicam is impressive throughout.
Jonathan Price’s music is a generic array of orchestral stabs and bubbling synth — enough to remind you of a Stuart Gordon movie (but also make you wish you were watching a Stuart Gordon movie). The score is as flat as the lighting, which is pretty much limited to on or off.
Aside from a couple of stylistic flourishes, there’s little to recommend here. Inoperable is a deadly combination of dumb and over-complicated; a puzzle box born of the Nolan generation, where the more it explains the less interesting it becomes. As far as first features go, it’s not quite inoperable, but it is inauspicious.