Recently I signed up for my free week of Shudder, a Netflix-esque streaming service exclusively for horror films. The collections, ranging from ‘Gross Anatomy’ to ‘Diabolical Documentaries,’ are impressively curated, but what I was looking for was featured on the home page: Sweet Sweet Lonely Girl.
While Sweet Sweet Lonely Girl may nod to several classic films from the 70’s, this gothic horror brings something new and special to the thriller scene: An all female cast. With only three main characters, one of whom is agoraphobic and rarely seen, that may not seem all that impressive at first. But between watching the film and my chats with leading actors Erin Wilhelmi and Quinn Shephard, it’s clear that Hollywood has been long overdue for such diverse and complex female characters.
The film is a period piece, set in the 70’s during the Reagan-Carter debate during a political climate not so detached from our own today. Director A.D Calvo manipulates the audience’s level of comfort throughout the movie through frequent hard cuts and beautiful cinematography. The outfits are fantastic, and the feel good music of that era starkly contrasts the dull tones and constant overcast skies of the small town featured. Adele (Erin Wilhelmi) moves to the town to look after her agoraphobic Aunt Dora. The audience learns from short clips in the intro and narrated diary entries that, even before being isolated in her aunt’s mansion, Adele never felt particularly loved or wanted at home with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend. When Beth (Quinn Shephard) comes into the picture, she is a fascinating breath of fresh air to Adele. The two characters couldn’t be any less similar and their relationship is hard to label, walking the lines between friendly, romantic, passionate, obsessive and abusive.
I interviewed Quinn Shephard and Erin Wilhelmi separately, after they’d returned to New York from Germany’s Fantasy Festival. I was a little amused at how similar their phone personas were to their characters in Sweet Sweet Lonely Girl. Erin was more quiet and incredibly polite—never missing a chance to compliment director A.D Calvo, Quinn and the crew. Quinn was equally lovely yet intimidatingly confident, and I found myself mesmerized by her demeanour much in the same way Adele is fascinated with Beth. They were both booked through self tapes, both had to watched the 12 films that inspired Calvo for this feature, and both were nervous at the first table reading. Fortunately, they became close friends almost instantly. The actors still hang out together with the director and crew when their busy schedules allow for it—a true testament to the connection everyone made on set.
“Working on Sweet Sweet Lonely Girl felt like a vacation to me,” Quinn says, although she spent her lunch breaks editing the film she wrote, Blame. To call a set relaxing is rare on the usually manic sets of independent films, but both women agree that the cast and crew made the setting truly enjoyable.
“I was impressed with how much we were able to get done,” Erin tells me. While every independent film would love a couple more thousand dollars and an extra week or two, she adds that, “Having a more intimate crew and cast allowed Quinn and I to ask more questions and get more involved with the whole process. We had a lot of input when it came to our lines and moments.”
Sweet Sweet Lonely Girl was Erin’s first time playing a lead in a feature film, but she knew this role would be a brand new experience for reasons beyond that. The film truly focuses on two women the whole time and, as a viewer, you can tell that each character’s history and desires has been diligently designed.
“Alex always walked onto set so willing to discuss our characters and anything we might feel uncomfortable about,” said Quinn. She and A.D spent a lot of time working on the factual accuracy of Beth’s background story. “I was exploring a character that was an entity, a demon. I had trouble at first with humanizing her, Quinn admits. “A.D and I worked on questions like “Where did she come from?” and “What was her past?”
That being said, Quinn loved playing a female villain and thinks audiences don’t get to see enough of them.
“We are definitely departing from the stereotypes though,” Quinn says, amazed at how Fantastic Fest diverged from the usual tropes of the horror drama. “There’s going to be more complicated female characters showing up in horror and less half naked women crying as they’re being chased by a man in a mask.”
When I asked her if there was any internal struggle for her between her two films: Blame, which showcases the damage done to young girls when their forced into their sexuality vs. Sweet Sweet Lonely Girl, which includes many make-out scenes between two attractive young girls, she is quick to nay say.
“Kissing Erin was a lot easier than some of the scenes I’ve had to do with older men,” Quinn says. “The scenes are beautiful, subtle and far from fetishizing the novelty of the situation. We get asked about them often though, and I think it’s just because we’re women.”
Both women began their acting careers through school plays: Erin as Gollum in The Hobbit and Quinn as Abigail in The Crucible.
“My math teacher didn’t even recognize me in the play,” Erin laughs, recalling, “I loved and am still attracted to that feeling of completely changing characters.”
I talked to both actors about their choices of roles and whether they’re in a place professionally where they can choose their work and keep their political values in mind.
“You’re a working actor, you need support and work and want to be onboard projects because logically, you need to be employed” Quinn says. “Some choices feel more symbolic as to who I want to be as an artist. If I were being picky, I would still pick to play Beth.”
Erin spoke similarly, only adding that she absolutely keeps politics in mind and was drawn to the similarities of the Reagan/ Carter era in Sweet Sweet Lonely Girl and today.
I’m still unclear whether Sweet Sweet Lonely Girl fits perfectly into one category. It’s part relationship thriller, part haunted house film and part genre homage. It’s more of a beautiful nightmare than a horror film. All I know is that I can understand why Shudder knew they had to add the film to their streaming service when a representative saw the premiere at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas. It’s something old meets something new and promises to thrill you through gorgeous aesthetics. For people like Erin and I who can’t handle gore: don’t worry—this film will freak you out, but not gross you out. So what are you waiting for? Sign up for Shudder and watch Sweet Sweet Lonely Girl.