Review: Creepy thriller ‘Alone’ turns archetypes into gripping suspense

We all know the classics, but what if you’re looking for a new Halloween flick?

Don’t miss the creepy thriller “Alone,” now streaming on Video on Demand.

It follows a widow named Jessica (Jules Willcox) who embarks on a road trip to Oregon. While driving across the Pacific Northwest, she encounters road rage from a fellow driver (Marc Menchaca), who she suspects is stalking her between rest stops.

This thrilling two-hander relies heavily on its dueling leads. Willcox (“Bloodline”) is exceptional, expressing everything with her eyes glancing in the rearview mirror — with very little dialogue necessary. We know very little about her character (more on that in a minute), so Willcox’s performance alone invites us to care about her.

Menchaca (Russ Langmore in “Ozark”) is also superb, toeing the line so well that we don’t initially know whether he’s a sadistic stalker or a good guy apologizing for his temper. Eventually we learn his motives, but even while the trailer contains spoilers, the film gives him a backstory that adds another layer to his creepy character.

While some horror relies on swerves, that approach can be dangerous for new screenwriters unless the twist is done perfectly, like in “Psycho” or “The Sixth Sense.” Instead, Swedish scribe Mattias Olsson (“Gone”) is admirably straightforward in his “Alone” script, exploring tried-and-true archetypes with suspenseful execution.

Hats off to director John Hyams, who wowed South By Southwest with his drama “All Square” (2018) before creating the Netflix horror series “Black Summer” (2019-present). In “Alone,” he demonstrates a minimalistic knack for showing and not telling, tapping into our most guttural fears and survival instincts with well-paced tension.

He clearly is a student of the genre, as his intro echoes “Duel” (1971) or “Jeepers Creepers” (2001), only this time it isn’t a big rig blaring its horn but a deceptively innocent SUV. The biggest scares come from our hero spotting the same vehicle in parking lots, textbook use of what film theorist Stefan Sharff called the familiar image.

Hyams soon shifts genres into the realm of claustrophobic captivity, as in “Misery” (1990), “Room” (2015) or “Split” (2017), tapping into our deepest fears of losing our freedom. We ask ourselves whether we could hatch the same clever escape plans.

Ultimately, Hyams shifts once more into a wilderness survival tale, like “Deliverance” (1972) or “The River Wild” (1994), as the protagonist battles the elements of weather, the disguise of nightfall, and rugged terrains through forests, rivers and caves. This theme of Woman vs. Nature juxtaposes nicely with the plot of Woman vs. Man.

Throughout this journey, the script is broken into distinct chapters that dip to black with a new title card, which helps propel the story forward to see what happens next. Most of these chapter titles make sense, though one is named after something that doesn’t happen until the very end of the chapter, so it’s a tad misleading. (Nitpicking, I know.)

If there’s any flaw, it would have been nicer to learn more about Jessica’s backstory. We know that she’s grieving her dead husband, but why is she feuding with her parents? Will she go back to them after this ordeal? We don’t necessarily need the falling action of a reunion, but perhaps she could have called them to apologize.

Either way, it builds to a killer showdown that leaves our hero muddied and bloodied, the visual representation of her emotional struggle. We truly feel for all she’s gone through during this harrowing journey. At a gripping 1 hour and 38 minutes, it’s a quick watch that keeps us enthralled the entire time, perfect for your Halloween viewing.

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