Misguided Psychological Horror Presence Is Lost at Sea

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Misguided Psychological Horror <i>Presence</i> Is Lost at Sea

Christian Schultz’s Presence is a possession thriller gone aimlessly adrift over international waters. Where seafaring horrors like Triangle and Harpoon made quite the splash, Presence barely leaves a ripple of a wake. Schultz and co-writer Peter Ambrosio try mixing social psychological insidiousness with everyone’s favorite yacht-life reality show Below Deck, but it’s more frustrating than perpetually choppy waters. Presence treats paranormal frightfulness with the least enthusiasm, hinged on a third-act twist that sinks fast by recalling not only one of the most frustrating finale tropes in horror, but film and television history.

Jennifer (Jenna Lyng Adams) and business partner Sam (Alexandria DeBerry) hope to get rich with a new zipper patent. Jennifer worries when Sam goes missing for weeks with no contact until an out-of-nowhere call demanding that she join an impromptu yachting adventure. Millionaire entrepreneur David (Dave Davis) bought Sam’s sales pitch hook, line and sinker, but needs the girls to join him for a private cruise to his offshore manufacturing plant. Jennifer says yes, hops a charter jet and is soaking in rays upon an unspeakably expensive yacht with the promise of a $25 million payday—as long as her nightly visions, a looming figure she sees and her possibly being a sleepwalking murderer don’t ruin the partnership.

Presence introduces Jennifer as a mentally unwell New Yorker trying to cope with her best friend’s relationship ghosting, who sees this spectral figure in the dead of night. It’s the cheapest representation of supernatural hauntings, as Jennifer’s shadow—the part of Jennifer she can’t shake—stands motionless in the background now and again. Horror derives from the visions Jennifer suffers in a mania of quick-cut montages, questioning whether she’s actually killing her possessive, barroom-brawling ex, or stabbing nondescript yacht crew members. The spirit doesn’t participate beyond being a statue prop—Presence is a commentary on the brink of sanity that doesn’t boast much to scream over.

Enter the reappearing Sam and filthy rich David, who humor Jennifer’s condition in the name of stretching the length of the narrative. Sam uncaringly downplays Jennifer’s panic attacks and selfishly barks “suck it up” complaints. David suspiciously and uncomfortably reacts to a necklace around Jennifer’s neck—gifted by Sam before vanishing, never mentioned again by David until the story’s climax. What happens between Jennifer foolishly stepping foot onto an enclosed vessel while woefully unwell and David’s confession about his fixation on the necklace is a whole lotta nothing, and that’s the problem with Presence. David’s driven by dollar signs in his eyes and Sam’s either boinking David or belittling Jennifer’s well-being, so it becomes a rinse-and-repeat cycle of Jennifer getting closer and closer to stabbing one of the nameless deckhands with kitchen knives.

It’s hardly the fault of suitably fine actors Adams, DeBerry and Davis. Nor the luxurious shooting location, replete with glass staircases and hot tub nooks. Presence is just exhaustively one-dimensional, with sparsely engaging horror elements outside the darkened cardboard cutout with glowing pupils or Jennifer’s eye-blackened loss of control when “The Presence” takes over. Exotic cinematography becomes reusable as Adams or DeBerry slink around lower bedrooms or topside quarters, although it’s nice to see Davis flash the only prominent nudity in the film—at least Schultz subverts one horror trope (“No naked dudes, just women”).

Presence is a regrettable chore. Christian Schultz wastes space with under 90 minutes to work with while poorly executing almost every new development. It’s not just about Jennifer’s ghost—marked jewelry, Jennifer’s vaguely witchy hallucinations and finale surprises all throw Presence off course. Schultz struggles to tell a coherent psychological slow-burner with the momentum of a paddleboat, chasing the thrill-seeking highs of a two-foot log flume. You’ll acknowledge the solid technical chops, but that’s only half of a losing battle that feels determined to leave its audience stranded, afloat in the nothingness that Presence becomes.

Director: Christian Schultz
Writer: Christian Schultz, Peter Ambrosio
Starring: Jenna Lyng Adams, Dave Davis, Alexandria DeBerry
Release Date: November 17, 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.