Robert Rippberger calls upon the single-take aesthetic of experiments like Silent House and Let’s Scare Julie in 2022’s latest attempt at hiding edit cuts, Those Who Walk Away. It’s not one continuous shoot like Let’s Scare Julie, merely a blend of expanded sequences that hope to induce an accelerating sense of mania as characters waltz through haunted house spooks. Or, more appropriately, that’s the intent once Rippberger actually reaches his slovenly supernatural abode. It takes a whopping 45 minutes—half the film’s running time—to summon a fiend dubbed “Rotcreep” (Nils Allen Stewart) from beneath stained wooden floorboards. Sadly, it’s far too late, given how the preceding events feel torn from a mumblecore romantic dramedy.
Max (Booboo Stewart) and Avery (Scarlett Sperduto) are meeting outside digital dating app text boxes for the first time. It’s awkward. Mouths stammer, with hearts set on a local retro screening of Evil Dead. Upon reaching the movie theater, bad news presents itself as a bomb threat and indefinite closure. Avery suggests alternate plans to investigate another local landmark where paranormal occurrences could spice up the night. Max refuses to shy away, trying to impress the girl of his dreams, except their profoundly connected traumas—Max’s abandonment of his mother with Huntington’s disease—may awaken unkillable evils that threaten foolish lovebirds.
Those Who Walk Away cuts a wicked trailer where continual takes suggest this maze-like descent into a nightmarish structure. It’s the reason I’m writing this review. Rippberger entices through bold ambition and doesn’t shy away from cinematography that would make most camera operators buckle under pressure, but fails to understand how long our attention spans might endure. Stewart and Sperduto spend what feels like ages stuttering through cringy first-date chatter while moseying around small-town main roads, which is a death knell to momentum that never amasses. It’s aimless and increasingly dull—and also needless by the time Rippberger even introduces the impetus behind Avery’s romantic redirect as afternoon turns to nightfall.
There’s an intimacy Rippberger tries to weaponize by favoring elongated takes that pull tight on Max’s figure, far better exemplified last year by Jorge Olguín’s La Casa. Rippberger’s production design unleashes a moldy infestation that decays anything Rotcreep touches from outsides to insides—bodies, walls, furniture—yet something blocks the audience’s total immersion. Max watches black-and-white sitcoms from a fantasy universe, confronts Rotcreep’s paint-by-numbers task, and becomes tainted by black stains that spread across his flesh right in front of the camera’s lens. There’s no lack of alarm present; it’s just that the dissipation of atmosphere never capitalizes on camerawork that’s otherwise reminiscent of found footage perspectives…should the director of photography have been another character. The scares that once looked harrowing spliced into a marketable two-to-three minutes now lack intensity and shriek-worthiness thanks to Max and Avery’s arduously overlong buildup.
Rippberger sought inspiration from Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” about one community’s abundant happiness thanks to the “perpetual misery of a single child.” In this metaphor, Stewart suffers for our genre entertainment as the actor tries his mightiest to carry Those Who Walk Away. Max projects his inability to caretake through his mother’s sickness onto Rotcreep’s lock-in survival gauntlet, which Stewart does his best to emotionally develop—the problem being Spencer Moleda and Rippberger’s screenplay. So much importance gets lost between daylight conversations and Rotcreep’s house of horrors that the dueling locales play like two clashing features, which is an insurmountable disservice. Psychological sizzles and Halloween mask creature attacks just don’t have the staying power to withstand “too little, too late” realities.
Those Who Walk Away sure does walk itself to the starting line, making a meal out of every exaggerated step forward. Rippberger pulls multiple technical tricks from nocturnal color changes denoting low basement visibility to flippy, twisty camera tricks that accentuate choice moments of one-take absurdity. These flourishes tease a flick that’s memorable only in fleeting bursts, otherwise exhaustively too lengthy even at 90 minutes. I wonder how a version of Those Who Walk Away plays should Max and Avery reach Rotcreep’s territory 15 or 20 minutes earlier, but that’s all “what ifs” and “could bes.” As is? I’ve been enticed by a brilliantly sold gimmick and left stranded by my own attractions.
Director: Robert Rippberger
Writer: Robert Rippberger, Spencer Moleda
Starring: Booboo Stewart, Scarlett Sperduto
Release Date: February 11, 2022
Matt Donato is a Los Angeles-based film critic currently published on SlashFilm, Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, and anywhere else he’s allowed to spread the gospel of Demon Wind. He is also a member of the Hollywood Critics Association. Definitely don’t feed him after midnight.