The Chair

It's hard to think of a more terrible and soul-destroying place than a cell on Death Row. Appeals drag on endlessly, yet every second passes by much too quickly. Your fellow inmates are all suffering in the same ways, though this is probably one time when sharing the misery doesn't help. And waiting patiently beyond a certain door is the bleak room where your life will end. Now multiply all this despair by a factor of at least ten, and you have an idea of the nightmarish world of The Chair.

The guards encourage each other in torturing the prisoners in ways both big and small. Murphy (Roddy Piper) is in charge of the block, keeping the inmates in line along with Alvarez (Noah Hathaway), Riley (Zach Galligan), Simmons (Derrick Damions) and Bowen (Kyle Hester). They all abuse their power sometimes, especially Murphy, but they're also disturbingly ordinary people.

Among the prisoners, Timothy Muskatell is Richard Sullivan, an innocent man counting down his final days. Next door is Tudley (Ezra Buzzington), driven mad by the stress. Jimmy (Jacob Banser) survives by retreating in on himself. Sullivan does what he can to help Jimmy out, but they all have very few options. And there's not much left of Sammy (John Siciliano) any more, since he's been the Warden's special project for some time now.

The Warden is played by the king of indie horror Bill Oberst Jr. He's either an eccentric genius or a horrifying sadist, depending on your point of view. For Sullivan he's the biggest nightmare of all, worse than the memories of his abusive mother (Naomi Grossman) and more terrifying than the Chair itself. But as the pressure builds and Sullivan's grip on his sanity weakens, it's increasingly difficult to tell what's real and what's a terrible dream -- or an even more terrible memory.

Muskatell's portrayal of Sullivan is both terrifying and terrified, and while it's no surprise that Oberst is sometimes the kind of larger than life villain you can't look away from, he also gives a convincingly understated performance in other scenes. In similar fashion, a film that starts as a brutally straightforward depiction of how inhuman humans can be becomes something far more insidious. It's a claustrophobic movie, dark in many ways, where every grim detail rings true even as you're less and less sure of what the truth is, or what right is. You might want to watch it twice.

Image: 
Murphy and Sullivan have a heart to heart. Sort of.

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