The central conceit of director Brad T. Gottfred’s Confessional is an updated, low-budget approach to the old chestnut of a mysterious host inviting people to a certain location and having them crack under pressure, or killing them — think The Beast Must Die (1974), The Cat and the Canary (1939), or Ten Little Indians (1965). In the case of Confessional, a group of college students come to a specially built booth that records their deepest, darkest secrets, to which they have been invited by an unknown host after the death of two mutually known fellow students. The film is an exercise that stays true to its technique, but it gets convoluted and has the issue of not presenting any characters for viewers to truly get solidly behind.
Film student Amelia Lincoln (Mia Xitlali) and star swimmer Zach Turner (Brandon Larracuente) both die puzzling deaths. Seven students from their university are blackmailed by an unknown person into revealing what they know about the deaths of the duo. Psychologically and physically scarred Carrie (Jess Gabor), her stepbrother Sai (Jake Short), small-time drug dealer Raquel (Annalisa Cochrane), Zach’s good friend Garrett (Marcus Scribner), introverted film student Noelle (Vanessa Marano), Zach’s girlfriend June (Paris Berelc), and smarmy right-wing misogynist Major (Lucas Adams) all come to the booth (mostly at separate times) as to avoid whatever goods someone has on them being spilled. Their monologues are edited together rather than being presented separately, which seems to make matters more confusing for viewers but also keeps the film from being a mere series of talking heads one after the other.
Dramatic build-up ensues, if not outright suspense, as confessions are made and then discovered by others as the host plays these friends and acquaintances off one another. Sexual politics of all stripes come into play, ugly truths are uncovered, the secret nature of an underground club is revealed, unrequited loves are announced, and two people decide to have a sudden hookup in the booth despite — or perhaps because of — knowing that they are on camera. It all gets tangled up in Jennifer Wolfe’s screenplay, leading to a climax that isn’t far removed from a mad scientist reveal.
As previously noted, none of the characters are particularly likeable, though Carrie is arguably the most sympathetic. The acting ranges from a bit overdone and corny to good and convincing, and pretty much the same can be said for the dialogue. Characters switching which of the multiple cameras they look at as if to follow the red lights on a live TV broadcast feels a bit odd, though at least it avoids the monotony of a one-camera static shoot. The plot is easy to get lost with — not lost in, to be clear — and “It must be so and so!” accusations substitute for red herrings.
There is enough mystery in Confessional to keep things interesting to the big reveal, and Gottfred and Wolfe stick to the confessional booth gimmick and make it work. The approach is a unique attempt at updating a tried-and-true horror/mystery film stand-by, and the performances are always amusing, for mostly good but sometimes questionable reasons. With points for originality, the film is certainly worth a watch.
Confessional is a Shudder Exclusive, available on Shudder in the U.S., Shudder Canada, and Shudder UK from May 28.