By Jerry Chandler
Athena is the story of Carl, a man living with both emotional and physical scars in the wake of his wife’s death. His life is crumbling around him, he’s tormented by dreams of his wife, and he’s turned to means of dealing with his issues that are not all entirely healthy for him; including tuning out the rest of the world. Athena is the story of Emily, a slightly schizophrenic, manic depressive who is doing okay handling her issues. She also seems to care for Carl. Then there is Athena, a voice that starts talking to Carl from inside of his head. Carl may be going mad, but then the voice begins talking to Emily as well. What is Athena? What does she want? Is she trying to help two damaged people, or is she trying to hasten their self-destruction? Athena is an independent film from Image Impact Group, GreySun Productions, the late writer Michael Louis Calvillo, and director Robert W. Filion.
The film starts out by introducing us to Carl (Matthew Ewald) and showing us what his life is like. It’s not a pretty picture. Scarred from what looks like being burnt in a fire, painting images that reflect a possible growing madness and depression within him, drinking too much, and suffering hallucinogenic dreams about the wife he lost; his life is in shambles. Even an evening walk with his dog turns into a hospital visit thanks to walking into a mugging in process and getting stabbed. It’s also here that we get a taste of the director’s sense of excess for shock value as the mugger vomits an odd slime into Carl’s face after stabbing him. But even at this early point in the film it’s unclear if the mugger actually vomited into Carl’s face or if it’s just something in his mind. The answer to which of these it is becomes clear later in the film.
It’s in the hospital as Carl is leaving where we first meet Emily (Vanelle) and get more than just a small clue that she’s smitten- possibly obsessed -with Carl. We learn a little later that Emily also works at the drugstore pharmacy where Carl picks up his anti-psychotics.
It’s after Carl first leaves the hospital that we get our first exposure to the voice we’ll eventually know as Athena. The name comes from Pallas Athena from The Odyssey, something the film itself establishes in a discussion between Carl and the voice. A female voice starts talking to him, telling him to get together with Emily. The voice references her having something needed to complete him, but what that is isn’t really made clear to Carl or the viewer.
We see Carl begin to suffer both mental and physical effects from Athena’s presence- or from his halting taking his meds to not risk losing Athena’s voice in his head. Events turn weird and the film seems to veer into the realm of films like 2006’s Bug. Although here we begin to actually see the things that Carl is seeing, and what Carl is seeing seems completely unreal.
In the meantime, Emily is beginning to experience the same voice in her head, but hers doesn’t assume the identity of Athena. Her voice is like Carl’s in that it keeps telling her that she needs to get together with Carl in order to find that something needed to be complete. We begin to see a series of flashbacks that explain the relationship between her and Carl, as well as the issues around it. We also get some scenes of her working out her frustrations with a sword that are put through some rather odd looking post production visual effects.
We then get a storyline introduced into the film about Travis (Michael Melendez) and his almost date with Emily. It’s through his introduction into the story that we both have a serious moment of WTF in the film and get things explained to us with regards to what it is that we’ve actually been seeing. It’s also from here that the story speeds towards its somewhat open ended and bloody finale.
Okay, I’m about to discuss things in a way that will involve serious spoilers. You may actually want to read the spoilers though, because going into this film actually knowing what is going on may help make a first time viewing of it come across better than it did to me the first time I watched it.
Athena as a film is simultaneously a fantastic little science fiction horror film and a total hot mess of a film. Once you have the opportunity to see it, it’s actually worth watching twice because knowing what’s actually going on makes the first roughly half of the film far more watchable- or at least understandable -than it otherwise may be.
My description of the film in the opening paragraph is written closely to the film’s official IMDB page description and the descriptions found on the film’s official social media sites. That description is accurate in a way, but totally gives you the wrong idea about the film. Athena is a film that could have been trimmed down a bit in its run time and fit right in as an episode of the 1990’s Outer Limits series that ran on Showtime. It also might have been better served as a film by being edited in such a way as to follow a mostly chronological progression of events.
The man that attacks Carl in the beginning of the film is in fact the much later introduced Travis. It is however much later in Travis’s overall story that this takes place. He does in fact vomit some strange fluids in Carl’s face. Travis works in a lab where they’re making some sort of love potion cologne based on chemicals they’re drawing from what looks like a two foot long alien insect. They have a containment break that infects Travis and two others with inch long larvae. Travis eventually kills the other two.
Travis has a date that night with Emily. In a mentally clouded state he goes to the restaurant they’re supposed to be meeting at and sees Emily eating with her gay friend Colin (Patrick G. Keenan) and flies into a rage. Colin leaves the restaurant and Travis attacks and stabs Colin in a back alley. This is the assault that Carl walks into while walking his dog. It’s in these struggles that Travis infects both Colin and Carl with larvae. Colin dies, and when Emily goes to identify the body the larva leaps into her mouth. This all takes place before we first see her meeting Carl in the hospital or see him interacting with her at the pharmacy.
Seeing these events at the beginning of the film and placed in a proper order might have helped make the first half of the film more enjoyable/watchable and less like a chore to get through. Had I not been specifically watching the film to review it but rather found it on a streaming service for an evening’s viewing; I would have turned it off before I was halfway through it. The jumbled nature of the first half or more of the film’s narrative combined with the unnecessary and slightly overdone dream sequences don’t work as executed for the story that’s ultimately being told.
The first half of the film almost feels like a jumbled attempt at misdirection. It feels like it’s designed to make you think you’re watching something along the lines of 2006’s Bug, but you are in fact watching something along the lines of a small scale alien parasite taking people over type of story. It also doesn’t serve the actors well. When we see some of the first few appearances of Vanelle as Emily, you get the feeling that she couldn’t act to save her life. Her reactions and expressions all feel wrong for the scenes she’s in. Then you get to the second half of the film and see the scenes again while hearing the voice of the larva in her head. Suddenly her take on the scenes makes sense and works because you realize that she’s under the influence of one of these bugs. It’s a shame about how it makes her work initially come across as well since once you get to the second half of the film you realize that she probably gives the best performance in the movie. For that matter, most of the performances actually come across as stronger than they do at first blush once you realize what’s actually going on.
Athena is not a bad film. Athena is actually a largely well shot and acted indie film that deserves at least two looks so that you can enjoy the story for what it is on the second viewing. The only filmmaking sin director Robert W. Filion commits here isn’t really a sin at all. His ambition and his vision for the film outstripped his and apparently some of his post production equipment’s abilities and seemingly the limitations of his budget. Frankly, it’s probably a sin that more filmmakers should commit these days.
But if you’re going to swing for the fences like that on one level, you may want to go a little more traditional on the other levels. The heavily hallucinogenic feeling dream sequences, the somewhat bizarre nature of how the characters have to act while dealing with the larvae they all carry, the seemingly random “shock” gross out moments; these would all probably play to first time viewers better using a more standard chronological narrative in the storytelling. As it plays now, on my first viewing much of that initially seemed through the first half of the film like unnecessary excesses and shock moments for the sake of shock.
Now, that’s obviously just my opinion. Others may disagree. As a matter of fact, some others have. The film has been making the rounds on the festival circuit and done rather well for itself.
Winner Best Screenplay Buffalo Fantastic Film Festival in Buffalo, NY November 2014
Winner Best Fantasy Mad Monster Party in Charlotte, NC March 2015
Winner Best Feature Macabre Faire Film Festival August, 2015
Winner Best Director - Robert W. Filion Macabre Faire Film Festival August, 2015
Winner Best Cinematography Macabre Faire Film Festival August, 2015
Winner Best Actor - Matthew Ewald Macabre Faire Film Festival August, 2015
Nominated Best Visual Effects AOF 2015
Nominated Best Actress in a Feature - Vanelle AOF 2015
Nominated Best Dialog in a Feature AOF 2015
Athena is an ambitious effort by director Robert W. Filion. It is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is an interesting film that’s worth a look (or two) to see if it’s your cup of tea. You can follow news on Athena here-
All images were taken from the Athena IMDB page and Facebook page.
Jerry Chandler follows geek stuff. When not found writing here he can be found writing for Gruesome Magazine and his own blog. He has a Twitter. He can also occasionally be heard talking pro wrestling with the amazingly talented crew at of the ESO Pro: The Pro-Wrestling Roundtable podcast.