Another deep dive into the twilight zone of sub-culture nightlife, writer/director Aaron Pagniano’s lo-fi thriller has a slick trailer and stills, but a low rating on imdb. If you’re wondering why that might be, the answer is simple; it’s original. The horror field is jammed with user-friendly rip-offs and imitations, but Sunset on the River Styx sets out a very different stall; while there’s no shortage of incident, the film only tips its hand towards the supernatural in the last half hour, and that’s a good thing. The patient build-up establishes better characters and atmosphere than might be expected, and the pay-off punches above its weight.
The setting is Florida, and a lonely bus driver struggles with the monotony of his day. He’s Will (Phillip Andre Botello), and his combative relationship to his unruly passengers would be enough to send him out of his mind until he falls under the spell of the mysterious Ashe (Jacqueline Jandrell). A tentative romance develops, but Ashe clearly has some undeclared baggage, and Will’s frazzled life experience makes him wary of involvement. Nevertheless, Will accepts her invitation to a party that turns out to be a cult meeting, which he disrupts in violent style. We then reverse to find out more about Ashe, and her relationship with cult leader Wreck (Cory Vaughn), who may, or may not, have vampiric powers to draw on….
Botello was the draw here; his obnoxious character in Wanton Want made a strong impression. He’s quite different, and much more sympathetic, as the put-upon protagonist Will, whose urban malaise makes him an empathetic lead. Will’s sense of his own character is important, because he’s up against a cult, and that’s a hot button topic in America circa 2021. Both Jandrell and Vaughn do sterling work as romantic interest and villain respectively, but it’s the way Pagniano packages their story that makes Sunset on the River Styx worth the recommend. This is a very creatively edited and well acted film with ideas that belie the small budget; the way small moments of social discomfort are dragged out is effective, and the atmosphere of oncoming dread recalls Starry Eyes and other blurred snapshots of the encroaching nightmare on the edges of modern life.
The slow-burn here may be too arty for sensation seekers, but they can get their kicks elsewhere; Sunset on the River Styx aims higher, with mythological allusions that are firmly grounded in the minutiae of Will’s journey. As a kid, I was terrified by a BBC Play for Today called Vampires, in which a young boy discovered that the whispered parental conversations overheard about the Troubles in Northern Ireland disguised a terrifying truth. Sunset on the River Styx manages to create a similar frisson; supernatural beings may be amongst us, and in Pagniano’s artful, imaginative horror film, the ease with which they creep up on the trusting and the unsuspecting is what makes them so frightening.