Festival Screenings – March 23rd (Tartan Year Zero)
General Release – TBC
I’m often cynical to a fault when it comes to new releases, but I have to admit the promise of a psychological thriller and a folk horror story combined is a fantastic hook. In an age where most independent chillers are just violent jump scare fests without tact or charm there was something classy about the look of Grant McPhee’s latest directorial effort. There’s also some fab retro style poster art that really speaks to me. However if you can’t tell already I’m working my way up to the big caveat and like a lot of things that seem too good to be true, they usually are. In reality this is a jumbled meandering drama rather than the dark disturbing brain twister that it could have been.
Bringing up the idea of style over substance may be a trite opening to describe films that focus on the wrong details, but it’s not always a bad thing. Take last year’s Mandy for example, which was more of a metal band album cover come to life than any kind of deep narrative. But the result felt both nightmarish and luxurious. Unfortunately here there’s more amateur music video vibe than anything else, in a film that frequently tries to mix things up visually but fails to be atmospheric or unsettling. It draws attention to the artifice of the story with a mixture of film techniques from 16mm to VHS, but all the format swapping feels gimmicky rather than meaningful.
The actual plot involves floundering art student Judith (Sorcha Groundsell) who seems to have a pretty normal life with a job at an art gallery and a mother who she doesn’t visit often enough. After visiting a photography show featuring the work of art scene big shot Roberta (Victoria Liddelle) she gets a very suspicious phone call from the very same artist, who offers her a residency at her rural estate. A quick internet search throws up some very concerning headlines about the occult and a manslaughter case, but instead of doing her homework Judith skips reading any of the information and jumps at the opportunity to move in with Roberta.
It’s an odd setup that raises a lot of questions, and things get stranger still when it becomes obvious that Roberta’s daughter Maddy looks exactly like Judith. Maybe she should have just taken her best friend’s advice or moved back in with her own mother. There are a few issues banded about like the theme of parental figures being replaced with idols and the idea that artistic ego and ambition might have its darker side. But there’s mostly a nagging feeling that this is all a thin veil to disguise the predictable plot developments to come, particularly when where are so many shaky film format changes and montage moments. These inclusions get old by the twenty minute mark when most of the story has been spelled out, and as things progress they only get more irritating.
There are a lot of spooky tropes along the way to make this all seem like an actual horror film, but for the most part it’s just a one note mystery drama that lacks atmosphere or suspense. Details about Maddy and Roberta’s relationship are sprinkled throughout but they come along far too early. Instead there are nightmares, endless montage moments and a lot of scenes in which Judith looks bewildered or ill. It comes as no surprise when her phone has no signal or when she thinks the water Roberta keeps giving her in every scene contains more than just a slice of lemon. But what it really needs is more character development and less grain flashback footage.
Wasn’t this all a simple tale about murder and the occult I hear you ask? While there are a few hints at these elements any moments of intrigue from the first act are pretty much wasted. Nods to films like Suspiria are kind of laughable when there’s such a lack of shock value or tension. It’s certainly not arresting or lurid enough. There’s generally a sense of cheapness and to the whole thing, a feeling that it should have been half the length without so much grainy filler. It goes beyond the bad wigs and the flat visuals resulting in a story that drags its feet as often as possible. The performances are all fine, but it’s lacking flair in all the ways that matter. A psychological thriller should be oozing with ominous foreboding, but like the script the direction is all very tepid and dry.
The use of hidden camera footage and hazy dream like colours does at least give it some kind of voyeuristic flavour, but there’s not enough to make it engaging. The story features a lot of pretentious art gallery pieces, but the film shouldn’t feel like one in itself. In the end it just comes across as half finished with all the darkest and most intriguing ideas being under developed or left at the wayside. Overall it’s frustrating in ways that take away from the potential of the core idea, and there are too many loose threads along the way for it to reach a satisfying conclusion. An artist getting obsessed with their work and losing their identity is a fascinating premise, but then so is the idea of a creepy cult wine soiree or an obsessive mother trying to replace her troubled child. A lot of this is here on the surface, but it’s all too shallow to hit the mark.