Saturday, September 29, 2012

Burnin' Love: "The Heat Chamber" (2005)

This film noir has a funky musical score, some great performances, and surreal direction. Too bad the payoff doesn't match the execution.

Jeff (Shawn Hoffman) is a race car driver down on his luck. He wrecked, and now drives a cab to make ends meet as his unrepaired car sits in a garage. Wife Peggy (Susan Matus) wants kids, and wants Jeff to sell his car and work for her brother. One day, Jeff picks up Lila (Carolyn Hennesy), and his luck changes. She "accidentally" leaves her purse in his cab, he returns it, and she gives him an opportunity that is too good to be true. He must come over to the house over the next several weeks, strip, have videotaped sex with mystery girl Sara (Kelly Chambers), and leave, never speaking to his partner. For this, he gets $30,000.

Peggy begins to wonder where Jeff is going at night, and why his race car is suddenly seeing new parts and money. Her worst fears are confirmed when an anonymous phone call clues her in, and then things really get complicated.

Writer/director Mark Norberg shot the film on video, but before you groan, he does some interesting stuff. The race car sequences, Lila's initial pickup, some of the sex, and some of the action scenes are shot using green screen and have a crazed look to them that film would not be able to achieve. The effect is surreal, setting the scenes above the video norm. The musical cues are dead on, almost reassuring the audience that this is not a completely serious piece, without becoming to quirky or comical.

The cast is great. Shawn Hoffman really scores as Jeff, doing all the things any normal guy would probably do. Matus is good as suffering Peggy, never taking the ignored wife part over the top. Carolyn Hennesy looks very high class as Lila, and has enough villainy that you might forget that air cleaner infomercial you have seen her in a thousand times before. The real find here is Kelly Chambers. As the easily manipulated Sara, she does a great job going from sex kitten to prisoner, her crying scenes really hit.

The film does drag here and there, and for a story that has anonymous sex at its core, there is no nudity. Considering the video effects make this seem like an overly complicated video game, I did not mind after a while. The finale is good, but I did see most of the ingredients coming together long beforehand.

Norberg certainly has the right materials here, and while it does not quite make it into the must-see category, you could do a lot worse. With "The Heat Chamber" showing so much promise, I am certainly looking forward to his next project. (* * *) out of five stars.