Review: ‘Held,’ starring Jill Awbrey and Bart Johnson

May 1, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jill Awbrey and Bart Johnson in “Held” (Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing)


Directed by Chris Lofing and Travis Cluff

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the horror flick “Held” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one person of Middle Eastern heritage) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A husband and a wife are held captive in their home by a mysterious intruder. 

Culture Audience: “Held” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching horror movies where the acting is substandard and the mystery in the film is fairly easy to figure out.

Jill Awbrey in “Held” (Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing)

“Held” is yet another horror movie about a couple with a crumbling relationship, they face unexpected terror, and the rest of the movie is about whether or not this couple (and their relationship) will survive the trauma. Unfortunately, the filmmakers of “Held” must think that viewers are as simple-minded as this movie’s mystery plot. The acting is often stiff, the pacing is frequently lackluster, and it’s not that hard to figure out who’s behind the terror that’s being inflicted.

One of the main reasons why it’s fairly easy to solve the mystery in this story is because there’s a very small number of people in the cast of “Held,” and only two people are on screen for almost the entire movie. Directed by Chris Lofing and Travis Cluff, “Held” has too many implausible things happening that are meant to bolster the flimsy plot. Once the “secret” behind the terror is revealed, it makes the movie look even more ridiculous.

In “Held,” which takes place in an unnamed U.S. city, Emma Barrett (played by Jill Awbrey, who wrote the “Held” screenplay) is a writer who’s taking a rideshare drive to the vacation home that she shares with her husband. The house is in an isolated area (of course it is), which means that no neighbors can come to the rescue or hear what’s happening when the inevitable horror begins to happen in the house.

Emma has a journal-sized book of poetry that she’s writing in while in the back passenger seat. Her rideshare driver Joe (played by Rez Kempton) is talkative and a little too nosy. When he asks Emma the reason for her trip, she mentions that she’s meeting her husband at the house for a weekend getaway. Her husband won’t be arriving until the next day.

Joe then asks Emma if she isn’t worried about being all by herself in this isolated area. And then Joe quickly says, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to pry.” But that doesn’t stop Joe from being a little more irritating when he gets to the house and he pressures Emma to give him an extra tip since the drive was out of his way.

The movie spends a little too much time in the first 20 minutes showing Emma doing mundane things, such as puttering around the kitchen or taking a shower. While she’s in the shower, she hears loud knocking on the front door. When she gets out of the shower and answers the door, no one is there, but she sees a vase of red roses on the front step, with a card that reads, “For Emma.” She assumes the flowers are from her husband.

While drinking some red wine in the kitchen, Emma accidentally spills some of the wine on the floor. When she crouches down to clean up the mess, she notices that that there’s something strange about the bottom of the kitchen counter. But before she can investigate, the phone rings.

Emma’s husband Henry (played by Bart Johnson) ends up arriving at the house shortly afterward, a day earlier than expected. He says something about how his business trip ended early. (The movie never reveals what Bart does for a living.) And it turns out that this weekend trip is for Emma and Henry (who are both in their 40s) to celebrate their ninth wedding anniversary.

Emma is Henry’s second wife. His first wife Emily died, and they have a son in his 20s named Graham (played by Jener Dasilva) from this first marriage. Not long after Henry arrives, Graham calls to tell Henry the good news that Graham has gotten engaged to his girlfriend Laura. Emma and Henry both congratulate Graham, but it’s clear that Graham isn’t very close to his stepmother Emma.

Henry and Emma’s marriage seems to have hit a rough patch, because they’re not really acting like this anniversary is something that they’ve been anticipating. The passion seems to have left their marriage. And when they sleep in the same bed together, they might as well be sleeping together like platonic roommates.

Whle Emma is asleep, she has a nightmare that there was an intruder in the house, and he was wearing all black, including a black rubber mask and black gloves. When Emma wakes up, she finds out that on her nightstand are two coffee cups, a rose and a card that reads, “To have and to hold, now and always. Happy Anniversary, Mr. and Mrs. Barrett.” The problem is that Emma doesn’t know how these items got there, and Henry says that he didn’t put them there.

Emma also sees that she’s wearing a white nightgown that she doesn’t own. And when Emma and Henry check their bedroom closets, they discover that their clothes have been replaced by clothes that they’ve never seen before. And then, Emma notices that her phone and car keys are missing.

Henry takes a rake and rushes into a nearby orchard to search for possible trespassers. And while he’s away, the landline phone in the house rings. Emma answers, and a man’s distorted, menacing voice shouts, “Obey us!” (“Held” co-director Cluff is the voice of the mystery man.) And now, Emma knows that someone is definitely targeting the house for some terror.

Panic sets in when Henry comes back to the house with blood on his head. He says that while he was searching in the orchard, someone ambushed him and attacked him, but Henry was able to get away. Emma tells Henry about the strange phone call. And what do you know, right at that moment, they get another phone call from the same mystery menacer.

This time, the voice on the other line has this demand: “You will not leave the house again. There are rules. You must obey us. Disobediences have consequences … We know everything you did.” And then, like a recording with a glitch, the voice repeats several times: “You must obey!”

Of course, bad horror movies like “Held” need the victim characters to acts as illogically as possible. Not once does Emma or Henry think that if someone is calling in on their landline phone, then the phone line hasn’t been cut, so they can use the phone to make outside calls. Emma and Henry don’t even try to use the landline phone to call for help.

The movie starts to go off the rails when not long after this second phone call, barriers are lowered on all windows in the house, like a garage door closing. The mystery menacer on the phone starts using the house’s intercom system to warn Emma and Henry that they are being watched at all times. When Henry touches a surveillance camera in the house to try to disconnect it, there’s a high-pitched ringing sound, and Henry gets electrocuted.

In fact, the house is so rigged with all these torture methods and gadgets to keep Emma and Henry in captivity, it will make viewers wonder who was able to get access to the house to easily set up this elaborate home invasion and kidnapping. Needless to say, if Emma or Henry try to touch any of the doors to leave, they get electrocuted and get a blast of that high-pitched ringing.

Because this is a horror movie, someone in the film is going to die. When the first person gets killed about halfway through the movie, it’s another clue about who’s behind this mayhem, because there’s really only one logical person who would have the motive to want this person killed. The movie tends to drag with repetition of the mystery menacer barking the same type of orders to Emma and Henry.

“Held” is so poorly written that there’s very little revealed about Emma’s and Henry’s backgrounds and personalities during this ordeal. Emma and Henry don’t even try to figure out who could be doing this to them and why. It’s eventually revealed in the movie who’s behind this terror, but once people figure out who would have the biggest motive to set up this elaborate crime, the suspense quickly evaporates.

The movie’s opening scene shows a young woman (played by Jana Claire Price) being kidnapped while she’s in the passenger seat of a car. And later in the story, viewers find out that this woman was Emma when she was younger. But this traumatic incident is barely explained in the movie. It just seems to be thrown into the story so viewers know that this isn’t the first time that Emma has been kidnapped.

“Held” would have been a more effective film if the acting and screenwriting weren’t of such low quality. Awbrey and Johnson are both very wooden in saying their dialogue. And then in other scenes, they overact in a way that seems very forced and unnatural. They’re supposed to be portraying a couple with a stale marriage, but they’re not very convincing. They just seem like two actors who are stuck reciting lines together instead of depicting spouses who have a bored familiarity with each other.

The movie’s direction isn’t that remarkable and uses a lot of the same tricks that have been done in a lot of other (better-made) horror movies that are about people trapped inside a house. The unfortunate dichtomy of “Held” is that its has a chief villain who meticulously thought out everything out for this kidnapping plot, but the movie’s screenplay was very poorly thought-out in how this scheme was implemented. It’s worth noting that there are no supernatural elements to this story to explain the many illogical things that happen in the movie. And ultimately, “Held” is not a description that applies to viewers’ interest when watching this shoddily made horror flick.

Magnet Releasing released “Held” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and on demand on April 9, 2021.

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