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Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Unsane’ takes a sophisticated approach to horror

The Oscar-winning director’s first foray into the genre offers psychological complexity wrapped in the trappings of a fright fest.

Claire Foy stars as Sawyer Valentini in Steven

Claire Foy stars as Sawyer Valentini in Steven Soderbergh's "Unsane." Photo Credit: Fingerprint Releasing / Bleecker

There seems little question that the horror-thriller-genre film — long dismissed as scary cheese — has gone upscale. One indication has been the work of James Wan (the “Insidious” and “Conjuring” franchises). Another was “It,” which may not have been Hitchcock but was among the top moneymakers of 2017. And no better example exists than “Get Out” (the recent Oscar winner for best original screenplay), which some people actually confused with comedy.

“My intention was to serve the black horror audience,” said writer-director Jordan Peele, who wanted to re-create what it was like “being in a horror theater in a black neighborhood. You can scream ‘Get out of the house!’ as much as you want, but the lead character doesn’t hear you.”

Peele was making his first film, and intending to make a splash. Wan started his career with “Saw” (2004), a founding film in the torture-porn movement. But Steven Soderbergh — whose psycho-thriller “Unsane” opens on Friday, March 23 — is an Oscar-winning director (“Traffic”) making his maiden voyage into crazytown. And that means something dramatic for the genre — even if Soderbergh isn’t taking full credit for what’s happened.

“What makes it tricky to even talk about is the extent to which I, Steven Soderbergh, didn’t direct this movie,” said the filmmaker, whose work has ranged from the breakout “sex, lies, and videotape” (1989) to “Traffic” and “Erin Brockovich” — which made him the first director in more than six decades to be Oscar nominated twice in the same year (2001). Since then he’s made such films as “Oceans 11,” “Che” and “Contagion.” Then he retired. Then he made the Cinemax series “The Knick.” Most recently, he created “Mosaic” for HBO. In other words, films for adults.

He said his intent with “Unsane” was to make a film “like I’m 15 years old and these are the kind of movies I’m into” — he cited “Repulsion,” “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Woman in the Dunes” — “and this is what I would make.”

What the imaginary adolescent Steven cooked up can barely be discussed without leaving plot spoilers strewed across the landscape. But what can safely be said is this: The movie’s central character, Sawyer (Claire Foy of Netflix’s “The Crown”), a young woman with a history of emotional difficulty, seeks counseling at a Pennsylvania treatment facility. She says the wrong thing and is held involuntarily for 24 hours — which then becomes a week of murder, mayhem, kidnapping and a rather scathing take on the state of mental health care in America. And privatization. And journalism in the age of Donald Trump. There’s actually a lot that we can interpret politically. Should we?

“Only if you credit me with being clairvoyant,” Soderbergh said. For Christmas 2016, the director — who shoots his own films under the pseudonym Peter Andrews — got a stabilization device for his iPhone7, something that enables the user to make “very, very smooth tracking shots. I said, ‘OK, this is interesting to me because its size allows you to create shots that would be very difficult, if not impossible, to do with a traditional camera.’ ”

He was eager to use it, and happened to be contacted in January by his writer friend James Greer, who was looking for a project. “I told Jim, ‘If you can write a low-budget thriller, I’ll shoot it in June.’ ” Greer and co-writer Jonathan Bernstein came back with the script in three weeks.

What’s the attraction of the horror-thriller? “Genre is such an efficient delivery system for ideas,” Soderbergh said. “What ‘Get Out’ was doing so well was using the building blocks of genre as a Trojan horse to get into some other stuff — and that keeps it from being disposable when you walk out of the theater. As it happens, this script came to me a few months before ‘Get Out’ opened, but it turned out to offer a similar opportunity, to have real-world issues leaking in from the corners of the film.”

Since the early days of Sundance, Soderbergh has been an icon of independent American cinema. As Wan told this writer, “Ask anyone, and they’ll tell you that most of the good horror films made in the U.S. are indie films.”

The indie “Unsane” is certainly an example of scary sophistication — psychological complexity wrapped in the trappings of a fright fest.

“There’s no question that over the last decade or so the ambition of these kinds of films has grown beyond just ‘I’m going to make someone jump out of their seat,’ ” said Soderbergh. “The films have become more layered, more complex, both cinematographically and narratively. And I think that’s great. You can’t say that about every genre.”

SODERBERGH’S SCARES

Director Steven Soderbergh hasn’t made anything quite like “Unsane” before, but he has made thrillers. Here are three standouts.

OUT OF SIGHT (1998) Generally considered to have been the film that both made and saved George Clooney’s film career, “Out of Sight” was based on a novel by Elmore Leonard and a screenplay by Scott Frank and co-starred Jennifer Lopez, Ving Rhames, Don Cheadle and Steve Zahn. Clooney, coming off a couple of clunkers, played Jack Foley, who, during his escape from a Florida prison, shares a ride in a car trunk with U.S. Marsal Karen Sisco (Lopez). The two get even closer. The storytelling is brisk.

THE LIMEY (1999) Soderbergh also gave something of a new lease on life to acting veteran Terrence Stamp, who gives a riveting performance as Wilson, a hardened criminal and ex-con investigating the death of his daughter. Violent, but intelligently so.

CONTAGION (2011) A pandemic-disaster thriller, “Contagion” was inspired by several medical disasters, including the SARS outbreak, and benefits hugely from Soderbergh’s native talents as an architect of cinema. But the film also benefited from the way the director laid waste to some of the bigger names among a Hollywood cast that included Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Bryan Cranston and Marion Cotillard. You never knew who was going to die next.

— JOHN ANDERSON

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