It’s no coincidence that “Show me the way to Heaven’s gate”, a line that brings to mind the infamous Heaven’s Gate cult that operated from the ’70s all the way through the ’90s, is repeated throughout the song that plays over Screwdriver’s ending credits. While the film never goes into full-on Eyes Wide Shut territory, Screwdriver is nonetheless a masterclass in how cults and their ilk prey on the vulnerable, a terrifyingly realistic odyssey of manipulation, gaslighting, and full-on psychological terrorization.
Screwdriver bears all the hallmarks of what critics generally refer to as “elevated” or arthouse horror—even though that’s mostly a BS term usually used as an out for said critics to give films like Get Out and Hereditary their due while still being able to take a stance that is dismissive of the genre as a whole. Between the disquietingly tense strings often heard in the score and the frequent, unsettling close-ups on everything from a plate of food to a painting, one could easily mistake Screwdriver for an A24 production in the best possible way.
When we first meet Emily (AnnaClaire Hicks), it doesn’t take more than a minute for us to see how vulnerable she is. Recently divorced out of the blue and with seemingly nowhere to go, she finds herself traveling all the way from Nebraska to California to spend a week at the home of old friend Robert (Charlie Farrell) and his wife Melissa (Milly Sanders). The pair of them seem more than willing to help, but from the very beginning things feel a little off and we soon find out that the couple has nefarious plans for Emily.
Screwdriver is often shot in a way that feels closer to a stage play than a film, with a slow-moving plot and heavy emphasis on both the tension that builds up between Emily, Robert, and Melissa and the multitude of ways in which Emily is slowly manipulated, broken down, and eventually indoctrinated into the life that Robert and Melissa have planned for her. All three leads turn in excellent performances, but it’s Milly Sanders’ tour de force performance as Melissa that stands out as the highlight of the film.
Seemingly every time Sanders is on screen she gives us a new side of Melissa, with the actress effortlessly shifting from almost robotically friendly to passive-aggressive and guilt trippy to tightly wound and bitchy to pseudo comfortingly manipulative—with a considerable amount of gaslighting thrown in just for good measure. In one particularly memorable scene, Sanders even manages to turn in one of the most chilling moments of beratement and verbal abuse this side of Piper Laurie’s turn as Margaret White in 1976’s Carrie.
Meanwhile, Robert is slowly hammering away at Emily’s psyche in an entirely different way. His methods of manipulation are more subtle, gaining her trust under the guise of providing her with free therapy, only to use said trust as a means of putting ideas in her head. Between him and Melissa, just about every flavor of psychological manipulation is on full display for us to see: gaslighting, reframing events, guilt-tripping, emotional blackmail, the whole nine yards. While the film never feels as though it is making Emily out to be particularly weak, she is certainly in a vulnerable enough place that the pair of them are able to gradually wear her down, and the further she attempts to investigate their strange behavior, the less and less certain she becomes of herself.
Screwdriver definitely falls on the more subtle end of the horror spectrum, leaning heavily into the psychological aspects of the genre and almost entirely eschewing the more visceral ones—but it still makes for one of the most unnerving films I’ve seen in recent memory. By Screwdriver’s nature, AnnaClaire Hicks’ performance is probably the most understated of the three leads, but the transformation that she takes Emily through over the course of the film is genuinely unsettling to watch. By the end, she feels like an entirely different person from who we met at the start of the film, one who’s gone from feeling uncomfortable in her new surroundings to genuinely never wanting to leave.
While Screwdriver might be light in terms of traditional scares, the atmosphere that director Cairo Smith creates is one of almost relentless dread and unease, finding horror in the all too plausible situation of a vulnerable woman finding herself taken advantage of by incredibly manipulative people, slowly having her agency stripped away under the guise of “freeing” and empowering her. It’s well shot, well acted, uniquely discomforting to watch, and easily a contender to be one of the best films I’ve seen this year.