SHF2024: Sweet Relief is a Bitter Pill of Small Town Chaos

Image courtesy of Salem Horror Fest

My favorite horror concepts are always the ones that are right in your face, and writer-director Nick Verdi’s Sweet Relief is abundantly that. A slow roll of suburban moral panic, Verdi paints the Rockwellian portrait of a sleepy small town and fills it with uproar over a viral internet challenge. It’s a song we’ve all heard before on the local news, insisting your kids are drinking, smoking, f*cking, and whatever the latest shocking trend is, too. It’s a lesson in ephebiphobia (the fear of teenagers), but it also speaks to the zeitgeist as well. How far we’ve strayed from a bucket of icy water for charity, as Verdi’s challenge involves murder.

The poster for Sweet Relief features the silhouette of a woman in back of a man in a police uniform covered in blood, all in a blue hue.

A few years ago, I remember watching a news program promote panic over a new viral challenge where kids were cooking Nyquil on whole chickens. The newsgroup did not recognize the satire the TikTok user entailed when uploading their video, staring around in amazement over the lengths the youths would go to get high. Watching the clip of these teens putting a chicken in the oven on the news clip on my phone, I burst out laughing. The ardent absurdity of teenagers cooking a whole chicken for food, let alone drug use, is funny enough, but knowing most of the cough syrup properties would not only burn off and have little effect after cooking was rationalized further with the idea that it would probably taste terrible, too.

Either way, the TikTok user succeeded, receiving national attention for the ridiculous video. The joke may not have made everyone laugh, but it is a joke. And, had it been real, the news would have just told everyone how to participate in the challenge. As Bailey Schulz from USA Today says, “It wasn’t until after the warning that interest in NyQuil chicken spiked.”

Verdi’s film begins in the same vein, with the instigating belief that a viral challenge is permeating fear throughout the community. Mr. McDaniel (The Silence of the Lambs’ Paul Lazar), a retired science teacher, is seemingly obsessed with Sweet Relief, posting the news of this online trend of people nominating death to anyone causing them stress on his social media feeds. If approved, the person wishing death is tasked with completing the murder, if they then choose to back out, they’re murdered instead.

A man in a cat mask hides behind the trees

Sweet Relief focuses on a fractured family navigating their issues. Nathan (Adam Michael Kozak) has moved out to be with his girlfriend, Jess (Alisa Leigh), leaving sister Hannah (Lucie Rosenfeld) alone with their aging mother, who’s easily susceptible to the hysteria of Mr. McDaniel’s social media posts. Meanwhile, Hannah sees Nathan’s exit as a betrayal, exacerbated by her mother’s choice of words, and takes measures to get her brother back by using the online game to her advantage.

Skirting Sweet Relief’s periphery is reformed child killer turned police informant Gerald (B.R. Yeager), whose delusional self-reverence makes for an interestingly awkward character. Gerald does small drug deals for the local police. His narcissism seems boundless, trying to impress women at a bar or deputizing naive adolescents into being his friends by posturing as a cop to feel important. Gerald’s persona allows him the breathing room for other extracurricular activities. But when someone catches him in the act, all three stories converge in an eruption of violence, the likes of which this small town has never seen.

There’s a lot to like about Verdi’s film, especially the underbelly of Americana he’s carving out. Suburban horror films like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween define their decade of release, and Sweet Relief has much to say about the current state of community bedlam. In A Nightmare on Elm Street, the teens are kept from the truth about what their parents did, only to find themselves entrenched in violence regardless. Well, the same issue presents itself in Sweet Relief. Instead of talking with their kids about the moral aspects or consequences of this viral challenge, it’s left for the kids to involve themselves. All the while, the police have a notorious child killer on their payroll, and no one is batting an eye.

A man in a police uniform holding a police baton stands in the doorway of a home in Sweet Relief.

Furthermore, Verdi’s film leaves you uncomfortable. He stretches scenes to their absolute limit, and you never entirely know whether he’s keeping you there for dramatic discomfort or because reality isn’t as dramatic as we make it. There are touches of Scorsese and the Coen brothers’ influence, especially on how everything connects, and there’s this extra low-budget grit helping elevate the film into more of a crime-thriller. However, with all that said and even at only eighty-seven minutes, Sweet Relief isn’t as tight as it could be. The film explores so many characters that it takes a while to set up and creates moments of audience fatigue. They’re not long bouts but long enough to notice.

The film’s acting is also a highlight. Lazar is excellent in the role and is utilized wonderfully in the film, given his limited on-screen time. Verdi plays a low-budget trick on the audience here, so it seems like Lazar is there throughout the feature. Yeager has his moments, too. I’ve known people like this, completely self-involved, lonely, and psychotic. The character is well written, but Yeager gives it that over-the-top flair that allows him success as a psychopath. Rosenfield is disquietingly sinister, and Leigh lives up to her namesake and then some.

All in all, Sweet Relief is an antagonistic piece that lands in the middle for me. There’s a lot on the undoing of Rockwellian America that I appreciate. Still, as a whole, it feels like it’s missing some elements, namely the lack of a police presence in the film in the wake of ongoing atrocities. The film’s score also didn’t gel against the movie’s atmospheric intent, bolstering a folk guitar at points where it dismantled the mood. Regardless, I believe the film is worth seeing for the parts of it that work, especially if you like social commentary films that adapt culture into horror stories.

Sweet Relief played Salem Horror Fest’s Weekend I. Though you won’t be able to catch it at this festival any longer, many more f*cked up horror movies are on the way during Salem HorrorFest’s Weekend II, beginning Friday, May 3, and running through Sunday, May 5.

Written by Sean Parker

Sean lives just outside of Boston. He loves great concerts, all types of movies, video games, and all things nerd culture.

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