"He Never Left" (2023) [Another Hole in the Head Film Festival]

by Joseph Perry and Mike Imboden

In our “The Good, the Bad, and the Verdict” film reviews, Joseph and Mike give their thoughts on a slice of cinema. For this installment, it’s He Never Left by Witching Season Films and James Morris.

After hearing strange noises coming from an adjoining motel room, a federal fugitive and his girlfriend inadvertently become targets of the notorious "Pale Face" killer, whose legend has consumed and haunted the local community for decades.

The Good
Joseph: He Never Left is the umpteenth masked killer movie I have seen this year, but thankfully it tries something new with the slasher subgenre. Director James Morris takes an interesting approach by focusing a character study with psychological thriller elements in a motel room next door to what sounds to criminal-on-the-run Gabe (Colin Cunninhgam) like something horrific going down. Gabe, who robbed his place of employment and then ran over and killed his teenage boss, has roped his ex Carly (Jessica Staples) into reluctantly helping him hole up in the room until his ride to the next hideout arrives. Cunningham plays a dirtbag who feels he is never at fault for anything quite convincingly and is a big reason to give the film a watch. The screenplay by Morris and Michael Baliff serves up a nice share of surprises.

Mike: There are some great ideas vying for screen time in James Morris’ He Never Left, chief among them the idea of a wanted criminal who needs nothing more than to get out of town being confined to a motel room who then inadvertently becomes involved in some trouble in the next room over.  
The biggest and best part of He Never Left is Colin Cunninhgam as Gabe, the main character and aforementioned criminal.  Gabe is one of those guys that blames everything on everyone except himself, a fact made worse by his paranoia and guilty conscience. Cunningham plays this role excellently, somehow making us dislike the guy yet finding ourselves rooting for him at the same time.
With most of the action confined to a motel room, it may seem odd to say the camera work is above average, but Morris finds a way to make the limited space feel open or confined, depending upon the mood needed. The cramped quarters and mystery of who is the room next door - and what exactly happened in there - lend themselves to creating a tense atmosphere that is maximized by Gabe’s paranoia that makes whatever bad thing happened seem like it could somehow be even worse than what Gabe suspects.

The Bad
Joseph: He Never Left does a nice job of playing with expectations surrounding stalk ‘n’ slash fare but it also left me with questions, and not the kind you want to have after watching a movie. It certainly doesn’t spoon feed information to viewers, nor does it need to, but I was left wondering about a few scenes that wouldn’t be fair to discuss here as spoilers would be involved. Sequences involving a pair of U.S. Marshalls (Morris and David E. McMahon) who don’t seem to get along well feel a bit too Tarantinoesque in their dialogue at times.

Mike: With an opening that evokes thoughts of The Town That Dreaded Sundown and a setting that is reminiscent of 2008’s Vacancy, it’s easy to get sucked into He Never Left.  Unfortunately, these ideas never really gel together, leaving you wanting more.  More explanation, more action - a little more of everything, really.  
The top of that list would be of an expanded mythology around the “Pale Face” killer.  Too much is left not just for the viewer to figure out but for them to create in the first place.  Aside from the opening, there is little to no background or stories of his exploits that make him a “legend” (as per the poster) until the final, final scene.  
While it certainly builds tension and amps up the drama, the film lingers so long in its first two acts that by the time things heat up you’re sort of ready for it to be over.

The Verdict
Joseph: Viewers looking for standard slasher fare with a high kill rate and gore galore are likely to come away from He Never Left disappointed, but for those like me for whom the subgenre is a hard sell in the first place, the film delivers plenty of the unpredictable and is a welcome riff on the usual tropes. If you’re looking for a highly unusual take on masked murderer cinema, consider giving He Never Left a shot. 

Mike: A great performance by Colin Cunninhgam is hamstrung by some pacing issues and a plot that reveals little and somehow manages to be filled with equal parts tension and coma-inducing boredom.  As a slasher film, this misses the mark, mainly due to its treating of the “legend” of the killer, “Pale Face”, as an afterthought that doesn’t get near enough screen time.  As a psychological thriller it comes a bit closer, oozing paranoia and featuring a main character with a borderline antisocial personality disorder, but never truly embracing these aspects either.  None of which is to say He Never Left is a bad film, but it certainly sells itself with a poster promising one thing and the film itself giving us something different for 95% of its runtime.  Despite its shortcomings, a sequel that delivers a bit more of the promising serial killer would be quite welcome.
Hesitantly recommended to fans of slashers and thrillers.

He Never Left
, from Witching Season Films, is currently playing as part of the Another Hole in the Head Film Festival which runs from December 1st - 25th.  For more information visit https://www.ahith.com/

He Never Left
Directed By: James Morris
Written By: James Morris, Michael Ballif
Starring: Colin Cunningham, Alicia Oberle Farmer, Charla Bocchicchio
Run Time: 1h 37m
Rating: NR
Release Date: 2023