RUNNING TIME: 105 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
SCI-FI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2017 runs from 27 April – 6 May https://sci-fi-london.com/
In 1929, six students from Victoria University, Toronto, set out to join their professor on a botanical expedition in a remote forested region of Canada – but find the advance campsite empty and the professor gone. Even stranger is that the professor appears to have burnt all his food, meaning that the group only have rations for four days. They set out to find the professor, who may have gone to a nearby abandoned mill, but the forest seems to have no animals living in it, and the group realises that they may be in deadly peril from what seems to be a murderous eco-system….
It’s surprising that one is still able to occasionally find a new twist on the eco-horror scenario, but the Canadian film Flora manages to succeed in doing so. It may remind you a little of The Long Weekend, and may remind you a bit more of The Blair Witch Project, but I have to say that its closest cousin is probably the masterpiece of hilarity that is The Happening, at least conceptually – though please don’t let that comparison put you off from watching it when it gets a proper release. I do however feel that it’s a film that will divide many viewers. Those who praise it for its cerebral nature, its restraint, and its brooding pace, will probably be balanced out by those who will criticise it for a certain tameness, a failure to deliver on the terror that the early portions of the film seem to promise, and considerable vagueness in many of its details. As I type, I haven’t entirely decided which side I’m on, though I’m leaning more towards the former than the latter, and hopefully as I come to the end of this review I will have made up by mind. One thing I’m sure on though: 25 year old Sasha Louis Vukovic, in his debut feature which was apparently shot over two years for the princely sum of 1000 000 dollars with a tiny crew usually consisting of just 13 people, has a hell of a lot of promise as a director, if perhaps slightly less so as a writer – though his screenplay is still often more intelligent than the usual peril in the woods thing you tend to get these days.
The Flora title forming against black from various threes of dot signals to as ominous and lengthy musical chord as you can imagine creates a feeling of dread right away, than we meet three of our group, en route via jeep to join the other three in their camp. Ora Blackwood [Ora, Flora….get it?] says how she wishes that the two guys who are with her Matsuhiro Basho and Haviland Corey would argue about something more interesting than which records to play as she writes and draws a comic book entitled The Adventures Of Ora. A mention of the recently sunk Titanic is thrown in to help create a sense of time, then the three arrive at the camp and join the others who comprise Haviland’s brother Rudyyard, nurse Avis Tasker, and Charles Horne. I must say that the first few scenes introducing these folk are awkwardly written and stiffly acted, but the performing side of things gets better and better throughout the film, as if it was shot in sequence. Vukovic should be commended for not going for the sort of forced, lame character introductions and sketchings you tend to get in many modern horror/sci-fi films [Life is a good example] and which is becoming something of a bugbear of mine, though he doesn’t really replace it with anything else until a few scenes much later on which do provide some background. Still, it’s nice to have really intelligent types for a change, and the 1929 setting soon proves to be a joy, especially because for once there are no mobile phones – so we don’t get the obligatory scenes of phones dying and/or signals failing [o, the horror!]. It’ s also well chosen, because it was a time when exploration had just reached its peak, and interest and knowledge about botany was very high.
Charles wakes up with a mysterious nosebleed and Matsuhiro’s fingers seem to be able to move ever so slightly without him making any effort to do so, but the most pressing issue is that the seemingly nutty professor is nowhere to be seen and burnt all his food. They work out that he disappeared four days ago, so first they decide to have a campsite piss-up, then to go to look for him the next day undoubtedly nursing huge hangovers [maybe they’re not as intelligent as all that]. There’s a terrific pan up to a bird’s eye view of the team suggesting that all is not well and that Nature Is Watching – though certainly not any animals as the area appears to be devoid of them. They reckon that the professor went to an abandoned meal and make their way there too. Along the way someone thinks he sees smoke – or does he? – we aren’t given his point of view. Still, all this woods wondering does maintain interest for quite some time because we’re genuinely intrigued as to what is actually going on, and a certain menacing atmosphere is certainly present, aided by an unpleasant screeching whistling sound, the eventual source of which certainly came as a revelation to me. Unfortunately around the half way mark things begin to stall. I love a good slow build-up, but in a film like this a sense of momentum should eventually start up, and this one chooses not to really have this until the last 20 minutes which is just too late in a 105 minute feature. In fact this is one film where some cutting may well have benefitted things, notably during an endless sequence of the group walking around in their gas masks.
There’s still much of interest though. When our characters seem to work it all out – well, I’m not going to describe the details, but Vukovic has clearly tried to make things as believable as possible and generally succeeds. The characters realise that they have to return to civilisation quickly, but it’s several days away, and they need to eat, so soon after this we get a scene which may well be yet another one inspired by that brilliant ‘testing’ scene from The Thing. Each member of the team has to take the risk of eating a small portion of a different plant which could be deadly. It’s quite tense though like some of the other stuff in the second half a bit over-extended. Still, there’s refreshingly little rowing or fighting, and those last 20 minutes are quite hair-raising and do provide some genuine chills, though many may find it’s too little too late. The film does seem to change gear awfully suddenly, and we are also given an emotional connection between two characters that borders on the romantic which wasn’t really built up to before [okay, there was one ‘bonding’ scene, but that’s it], meaning that some dramatic moments in the final scenes don’t really provide the emotional heft that they should.
The environmental aspects speak for themselves though we’re not hit over the head with preaching, Vukovic trusting the viewer to have a few brain cells. There also seems to a slight feminist theme present, though it’s not overdone. It’s revealed that Ora is “the first woman in the country with a botany degree” , but also that she faced stiff opposition from the academic community which or course was all male, while we’re also informed that nurse Avis actually wants to be a doctor but has been refused permission to be one by her father. I won’t tell you which one of the two becomes the ‘final girl’ but she’s one of the strongest in some time. In terms of ‘conventional’ horror stuff aside from the final act, we are once again we are reminded of how creepy gas masks can be, though you won’t find things like jump scares or gory deaths here, though there is some rather realistic looking blood vomiting and mouth foaming. It’s largely left down to cinematographer Eric Irvin, who makes the well chosen locations both sinister and lush, and composer Nathan Prillaman, whose often inventive score seems to be played entirely on ‘outdoor’ instruments’ and sometimes makes scary use of percussion in a way reminiscent of parts of Goblin’s Suspiria soundtrack, to try to get the viewer frightened. There were undeniably passages where I felt uneasy, if not really enough of them. At least Irvin and Vukovic favour ‘proper’ photography over ‘shakycam’ despite the undoubted found footage feel of the whole enterprise. Acting is sometimes spotty but mostly okay – Sari Mercer and Teresa Marie Dornan the two female leads probably fare best.
Flora could have done with some trimming and is a film that doesn’t really fulfill expectations, especially if what you’re expecting is loads of full-on terror in the woods, but in perhaps refusing to do what you may expect, it may also provide a bit more food for thought.