CFF23: The Ballad of Tearsucker Is All Cried Out

Image courtesy of the Chattanooga Film Festival

When Val Lewton went to work for RKO Pictures, he was presented with a bunch of titles the studio owned the rights to and began producing pictures written around the name. Cat People, Ghost Ship, and I Walked with a Zombie were among them and ostensibly describe what you’ll find in the film. Tearsucker, as a title, feels like it belongs in similar company. In the single-word title, you get a monster, the basis of what the film is about, and an easily unpackable idea for a socially relevant horror concept about a toxic male who feeds off the suffering of the women in his life. It’s a nerve-shredding idea by itself, which is why Tearsucker was among my list of films I was most excited to screen at the Chattanooga Film Festival.  

Outside of Tearsucker’s initial synopsis, I knew nothing. It read, “Emotionally vulnerable women are preyed on by a charming psychopath who wants to suck their tears.” A man who wants to make women cry is a bold concept for a feminist tome, and I began to entertain the several paths the film could traverse. Conceptually, I considered the film might align itself as more of a Dracula movie. In some regard, I guess that isn’t inaccurate, but it didn’t manage to go that far. It also turned out to be a far more uncomfortable film than I first thought. 

The poster for Tearsucker shows Lilly's face on a teardrop over a car with its lights on
Image courtesy of the Chattanooga Film Festival

Tearsucker stars Allison Walter as Lilly, a recovering victim of domestic abuse, who is still traumatized from the event when we meet her. She sticks to a routine of work and self-care, a privilege extended by being a work-from-home employee. While picnicking in the park on her lunch break one afternoon, she meets Tom (Sam Brittan), who charms his way into joining her, and, after talking for a little while, a date. 

The audience is apprised of Tom’s extracurriculars as the titular villain ahead of the meet-cute situation, stalking his vulnerable prey through online group therapy sessions and other online videos. Reverting to six months earlier, Tom corners a woman, Jenny (Emily Yetter), in a parking lot, and it doesn’t look good for the victim, as he grabs and assaults Jenny in a stomach-tightening scene of viewer discomfort that gives the audience a clue about what to expect. The film weaves in and out of predator and prey scenes. It tonally plays on perspective notions, with Lilly seeing her life as a bit of rom-com territory before cutting to Tom, who is caught in a version of The Stepfather or Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.  

Tears for Tom are almost akin to addiction. The ritual of sucking Lilly’s tears out of a handkerchief after their first encounter proves sexually exciting and, by the end, pushes Tearsucker to the outskirts of r*pe-revenge territory. Tom’s need for tears is never fully explained. Does he need to suck tears to live, or is it just a perversion furthering his hedonistic misogyny? There are hints to his origin, but should we take this cunning, unreliable narrator at his word? 

The first half of Stephen Vanderpool’s movie is very tight and atmospheric, while Sam Brittan’s script leaves room for slight ambiguities at the start. Any thought that Tom may be something more complex evaporates by the time we reach the second half, as we learn more about Tom’s monstrous nature and the patterns he’s adopted that place him in Ted Bundy/serial killer territory. And that was kind of the issue for me. Metaphorically speaking, the monster element works, yet Tearsucker doesn’t evolve its monster even when it seeks to change Tom’s modus operandi. The film uses Jenny as a way for Tom to improve his methods for retrieving women’s tears in an almost Dexteresque fashion but never gives the audience any reason to like Tom at the start. In a weird way, I guess I wanted my heart to feel a little broken, too, by how sh*tty a human Tom turned out to be, particularly because the audience empathizes so well with Lilly.  

Lilly lies in bed in Tearsucker
Image courtesy of the Chattanooga Film Festival

That said, Allison Walter is exceptional as Lilly. She’s uniquely emotive and dynamically expressive, allowing for a deep audience connection rather quickly. Honestly, the whole Tearsucker ensemble works well. Britton is creepy as hell when he’s rolling his tongue back and forth across his separated lips or providing an empty, steely-eyed stare on par with David Tennant’s, which is utterly disturbing. Dannielle McRae Spisso is excellent as the supportive yet cautious best friend, and Emily Yetter’s brief scenes are tremendously haunting. 

Ultimately, Tearsucker left me unsatisfied. The second half is on par with many old-school psycho-erotic thrillers like Fear and Unlawful Entry. However, its monster of a metaphor never fully emerges, leaving it an arguably unnecessary pathology for a character already mired in their own self-serving interests. Despite the unique monster mechanic that sets the film apart, Tearsucker doesn’t veer all that far away from a more formulaic movie you might see on Lifetime. Vanderpool’s film wasn’t for me, but I can see where people will be drawn to its thematic elements and the “good for her” moments as well. 

Tearsucker is playing as a part of Chattanooga Film Festival’s virtual lineup. Badges for virtual attendees are available and will allow you to see everything virtually. Single virtual tickets are also available. Tearsucker will also be available on VOD beginning July 7.

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Written by Sean Parker

Living just outside of Boston, Sean has always been facinated by what horror can tell us about contemporary society. He started writing music reviews for a local newspaper in his twenties and found a love for the art of thematic and symbolic analysis. Sean joined Horror Obsessive at it's inception, and is currently the site's Creative Director. He produces and edits the weekly Horror Obsessive podcast for the site as well as his interviews with guests. He has recently started his foray into feature film production as well, his credits include Alice Maio Mackay's Bad Girl Boogey, Michelle Iannantuono's Livescreamers, and Ricky Glore's upcoming Troma picture, Sweet Meats.

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