Stacie Ponder, best known for her popular horror blog Final Girl, has been making short films for a while now. So when I heard she’d grabbed a video camera and disappeared into the desert to make a movie called Ludlow, I was interested, but not surprised. I’ve been acquainted with Ponder for a few years and she’s always doing off-the-wall things like that. I moved from interested to intrigued when I learned the star of her film would be actress Shannon Lark, Fangoria magazine’s first Spooksmodel and founder of horror collective The Chainsaw Mafia. I’d interviewed Lark previously and found her to be a smart, multi-talented and, yes, beautiful woman who was very much in charge of her own fate. Ponder and Lark, together again for the first time. I couldn’t wait to find out what were these two doyennes of darkness were doing out there in the Mojave Desert, but details were hard to come by.
I finally dug up a synopsis of the plot: “Oh…I don’t know…it would be in the desert…and you know, something would happen…and then…I don’t know…stabstabstab the end.” Admittedly, not much to go on, though absolute genius in its simplicity—but how would Ponder and Lark bring this vague idea to life? Well, a little more than a year later, we finally have the answer to that question. And it’s not what you’d expect.
All of Ponder’s past films have been wildly funny, but Ludlow is very serious business. When the stark, opening images flicker across the screen, it’s apparent this movie is completely different from anything she has done before. A broken young woman, Krista, drives alone through the desert, on the run from her troubled past. Checking into a rundown motel to await the arrival of her sister, Maddy (Elissa Dowling), the battered Krista’s only companions are a large stash of cheap vodka, a seemingly endless supply of anti-psychotics and her increasingly disturbing thoughts. As she sits alone, waiting and self-medicating, her grip on reality becomes tenuous at best. Soon, she can’t tell what’s real and what’s not. And, to Ponder and Lark’s credit, neither can we.
With this movie, Ponder set up quite a challenge for herself—it’s difficult to make a compelling film with two characters, one location and one crew member. But Ponder pulls it off effortlessly. It would’ve been easy for her to misstep with material this dark and ambiguous, but her stunning visual sense and imaginative approach keep the movie moving forward steadily. The narrative she’s conceived is something of a funhouse mirror, and she translates the shattered psyche of her lead character quite effectively using a variety of video and editing techniques. The evocative score by James M. Barry plays a large role in her success, but Ponder’s ace in the hole is Ms. Lark.
As Krista, Lark is in every scene and onscreen almost every second, yet she remains eminently watchable throughout. She manages to make us care for Krista even as we grow to fear her, and that’s a nice trick to pull off. Her role demands she be vulnerable one minute and raving the next and Lark handles it with aplomb, making interesting choices and never once descending into the hammy histrionics these types of parts often elicit from lesser performers. Because of the all the blood and bruises and lack of vanity required, some might call Lark’s performance “brave,” but with her work here Lark has proven she’s a real actor, not just a “spooksmodel.” As Maddy, Elissa Dowling is successful in a tricky part, playing a role that’s more than it seems.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to reveal that I contributed a very small amount of money toward the completion of Ludlow and my name appears in the closing credits, along with many others who did the same. I spoke with Ponder about this before I received a screener, and we agreed that I would relay my true feelings and divulge any issues I have with the film. Accordingly, as much as I like Ludlow, I do have one consideration—the flick’s running time. At 65 minutes, it’s not quite what’s considered feature length, but I think it’s the perfect length for the material. Ponder could’ve added another 10 minutes, but that would be padding it, and I’d rather see a movie that’s a bit short than one that’s obviously been extended to make it run what’s considered the “correct” number of minutes. And in today’s video-on-demand culture, where people view movies on their computers and phones while answering email and surfing the web, who’s to say what’s the proper length of a feature? I believe that, as the internet becomes a more viable entertainment delivery system and theatrical runs become less of a factor, we’re going to see a shift away from 90-minute movies as a rule. The bottom line is, this is an accomplished film no matter its length.
Ludlow is a mesmerizing look at a woman’s journey into darkness, and it’s definitely not what I expected Ponder and Lark to deliver. Truthfully, I thought we’d get some kind of twisted buddy comedy, like a scary Thelma & Louise. Or maybe alien zombies. But with Ludlow, Ponder has proven she’s an artist with many colors and shades on her palette. I wonder what she’ll paint next—light or dark.