"Is there sex after death?".

Stephen (writer-director James L Edwards) is a middle-aged singleton who lives alone in the childhood home he inherited from his late parents. He's spent the last eight years working for the same telemarketing company. When younger new recruit Nick (Drew Fortier) is positioned at the desk beside Stephen, he breaks the ice by asking why he enjoys his job so much. Stephen casually replies "it's stable, repetitive, I know what to expect ... no surprises". This sums up Stephen's mundane lifestyle in a nutshell. He's not even concerned that his boss Blaze (Rick Jermain) is an unsparing wanker.

During a lunchtime conversation, Nick learns that Stephen hasn't slept with anyone in four years. He's a member of an online dating site but is looking for long-lasting companionship rather than a quick hook-up. Nick suggests he should go to a bar and look for someone that way, but teetotal Stephen accepts that he's socially awkward and sticks out like a sore thumb in such environments. Nick concludes the chat by vying to make it his mission to find Stephen a viable partner.

Despite Stephen's protestations that he's not looking for anything, we learn from candid video diary footage that he perceives himself as "the wrong side of forty ... and alone!".

After failing at the online dating game and a disastrous experience with a prostitute, Stephen is put on to a new venture by Nick called "The Girlfriend Experience" - where an escort will spend time with you in a social setting, and become your partner for the occasion rather than just a quick, er, in 'n' out. Following some reticence, Stephen is compelled to pursue this route.

And so, while leaving an all-night diner after another aborted prostitute encounter, Stephen encounters brassy blonde Christa (Shianne Daye). She's an off-duty hooker who he's immediately smitten with. He invites her back into the diner, buys her a coffee and makes a proposition: she gives him "The Girlfriend Experience". That is, they meet twice a week initially, go on dates, no sex to begin with, just the occasional holding of hands and cuddles. Christa - who initially introduces herself as Candy - sees this as easy money.

Over coffee and diet Coke, Stephen and Christa establish the terms of their "fake relationship" (his words). They agree to meet for four hours at a time, go on dates, and she's not allowed to talk about her work in the meantime. He doesn't want to hear about her experiences with other punters.

Over the course of several dates, they chat at length and gradually Christa begins to warm towards Stephen. He continues to be infatuated. When Nick hears about this, he's delighted - but urges Stephen to sleep with her. It may happen in the future, Stephen suggests.

That moment does indeed come in time, the couple building through a steady progression of holding hands while walking, to him placing his arm around her in the cinema, to her consenting to spend the night with him. However, Stephen means just that: he wants to fall asleep holding Christa in his arms. That's all. She's affronted at first - "are you sure you're not gay?" - but realises he's sincere about his innocent intentions and stays overnight.

An unfortunate sequence of events at his day job, meanwhile, leads Stephen into an altercation with the awful Blaze which costs him his job. When Stephen meets Christa and tells her he can no longer afford to pay to see her, she kisses him hard on the lips and expresses her love for him.

And then, tragedy occurs.

Now, the problem here is this film takes its time building up to this event, and so I can't reveal anymore as my synopsis has already taken you 82 minutes into a film that at that point only has another 37 minutes left - the last 4 of which are made up of the closing titles. So I'm not going to expand on what happens next. Which is unfortunate for you because this is where the HER NAME WAS CHRISTA shifts tone and moves squarely into horror territory?

Being shifty, I can tell you the final quarter makes canny use of De Palma-esque split-screen techniques to distinguish between the brutal reality of what's actually happening and the romanticised vision one character holds of events (illustrated stylishly by a distinction between the grey, lifeless look of the reality footage versus the warm, erotically charged hue of the fantasy version).

HER NAME WAS CHRISTA is well-made on many levels. Performances are committed and generally very good. Many fans of indie horror will be familiar with Edwards from his appearances in J R Bookwalter films such as THE DEAD NEXT DOOR and OZONE. In his directorial debut, he acquits himself well as a lead actor while generously allowing an entertaining supporting cast to all shine at relevant moments.

The film is edited with finesse, it's attractively shot with a keen eye shown towards colourful lighting and thoughtful compositions, and is disciplined in that it wants to tell a story that builds on characters and establishes a sufficiently strong bond between its protagonists before plummeting into a mental decline which undeniably lends events an air of the tragic.

There are minor practical effects employed during the final 30 minutes, all of which are adequately gooey and gross. The subject matter by this point may repel some, but that strong cinematic style is maintained and keeps affairs from being too much to bear.

HER NAME WAS CHRISTA appears to have been made with painstaking care, perhaps a labour of love for Edwards, which I do appreciate. And yet there are a couple of issues I have with it.

The pacing is a little languid. This film is 2 hours in length and, for a little over the first half, it's basically a romantic drama with occasional flourishes of light comic relief. It's testament to the script, actors and stylish visuals I suppose, that our attention is held.

More disconcertingly, HER NAME WAS CHRISTA could be read as a male wank fantasy wherein a middle-aged man believes he can score with a significantly younger woman purely because he doesn't treat her like a piece of meat. And yet, given the first opportunity, that's exactly what she becomes. I found the film creepy but in a flesh-crawling way, rather than a scary way, and I only hope that was Edwards' intention. I suspect his character's kind, gentlemanly middle-aged demeanour would be perceived by younger women as a harmless friend, and the idea that him spending time around a younger, beautiful woman compels her to fall for him seems a little ... implausible ... fantasist?

I know Edwards to be a nice guy though and I suspect any inert creepiness is intentional (he's not daft - he throws in subtle sight gags like how Stephen keeps his socks on, middle-age style, in later sex scenes). I'm also aware through research that Edwards partially based his screenplay on his own circumstances, and his fear of becoming a divorcee in his 40s. Being left on the shelf, as it were. It's something many people can relate to. Plus, crucially, there's a very late twist which suggests one character is not just deluded ... they're fucking insane.

HER NAME WAS CHRISTA is a very attractive film, aesthetically, even down to the stylised opening titles sequence. It's also daring in its moulding of genres as diverse as romantic drama, light comedy and, latterly, psychological horror with a downbeat finale. It looks great, shot on HD in 1.85:1 and is blessed with clean English 2.0 audio.

Look out, too, for cameo appearances from the aforementioned Bookwalter and fellow cult filmmaker Scooter McCrae.

SGM were sent an online screener by director James L Edwards, whose company Buffalora Entertainment Group will be self-releasing the film as a dual-format DVD and blu-ray affair in March 2020. They also aim to have it available to stream on platforms such as Amazon Prime and Google Play.

Catch this film when you can, it's a genuinely different proposition. I enjoyed it.

Review by Stuart Willis

Directed by James L Edwards