The opening credits of writer-director Theodore Collatos’s Tormenting the Hen include flickers of unsettling and salacious imagery—footage from the Holocaust, pornographic films, warfronts, and more—that suggest nothing good can come of two young women’s getaway from the craziness of New York City. Claire (Dameka Hayes) and Monica (Carolina Monnerat), a lesbian couple, travel to a large house in an unnamed rural hamlet so Claire, a playwright, can workshop her latest piece. Monica, a Brazilian émigré and grad student, is just looking for peace and quiet, which makes her vulnerable to the intrusiveness of the property’s caretaker, Mutty (Matthew Shaw), a hulking man-child who tends to his yard work with a monomaniacal focus that proves disarming.
Throughout Tormenting the Hen, it’s as if Monica’s very existence seems to be disintegrating, and Monnerat excels at capturing her character’s gradual slip into despair. But that Mutty’s peculiar demenaor is ultimately revealed to be a red herring dilutes some of the impact of a film dealing with a male figure intimidating a woman in a moment where the culture is awash in stories of sexual misconduct and assault. What seems like intentional behavior is revealed to be something out of Mutty’s control, turning scenes of suspense into bathetic sequences worthy of a Lifetime movie. By trying to have it both ways, with an air of mystery about some characters yet also offering concrete explanations of others’ strange conduct, Tormenting the Hen ends up suggesting depths it never reaches. The film’s fleeting sensation of a waking nightmare works to its advantage, until Collatos decides to offer banal explication for the film’s various boogeymen, and the illusion is shattered.
For much of the film, we only catch hints of Claire’s play, which traffics in a very specific kind of male toxicity, as it’s rehearsed; at one point, one of the play’s male actors goes so far as to accuse Claire of missing the point of relationships because “she’s a lesbian,” a sentiment which would be satirical were it not delivered in such sober fashion. Collatos favors plenty of restless close-ups—the faces of his female leads often fill the frame, crowding out everything else—and this visual claustrophobia helps sustain the thrum of nervous energy propelling Tormenting the Hen. But once the play becomes the entire focus of the film, the story has strayed too far into strident, angry politcal commentary. Collatos certainly succeeds in subverting expectations (what starts out in mumblecore territory winds up somewhere else entirely), but in the end, the way he transforms characters into mouthpieces for misguided hot takes after unspooling a fried-nerve thriller about a woman being stalked in the countryside is a bizarre miscalculation.