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Steven Soderbergh spooks Sundance with the haunting (and surprisingly funny) Presence

Decades after “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” the filmmaker returns to Sundance with a lean haunted house story, filmed from the perspective of the ghost.

Steven Soderbergh never appears on screen in Presence, but he essentially plays the main character.

 

Renowned filmmaker Steven Soderbergh has premiered his lean haunted house flick, titled “Presence,” at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. The film follows the titular ghost, portrayed through the perspective of a roaming camera, as it haunts an empty suburban house. When a new family, including Lucy Liu as mom Rebecca, Chris Sullivan as dad Chris, Eddy Maday as son Tyler, and Callina Liang as daughter Chloe, moves into the house, a twisted tale of unexplained occurrences ensues.

Soderbergh, known for taking on multiple roles in his films, serves as the editor and cinematographer under the pseudonyms Mary Ann Bernard and Peter Andrews. However, in “Presence,” his camera becomes the central character, watching and influencing the lives of the Payne family.

The film combines classic haunted house elements such as flickering lights and random occurrences with a taut character drama. It focuses on the unraveling of the Payne family, trapped in a single-location nightmare. The plot unfolds gradually, revealing secrets about the family’s past and their dysfunctional dynamics.

A still from Presence by Steven Soderbergh
Callina Liang in ‘Presence’.COURTESY OF SUNDANCE INSTITUTE

Soderbergh’s camera work is distinctive, with scenes ranging from quick glimpses to extended sequences. It moves through the house, peering out of windows and hovering over characters’ shoulders. The camera’s presence creates a sense of lurking dread, using long, uninterrupted takes to build tension rather than relying on jump scares. The film also surprises with its humor, featuring memorable performances from Julia Fox as the chipper real estate agent and sharp, comedic exchanges between Liu and Sullivan.

Overall, “Presence” is a haunting ghost story that blends dread, humor, and character-driven storytelling. Its impact lingers long after the film concludes. The film receives a grade of A-.

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