Quick Synopsis: An ageing film star (Veronica, played by Alice Krige) retreats to the Scottish countryside with her nurse to recover from surgery. While there, mysterious forces of revenge emerge from the land where witches were burned.
I am aware I have huge gaps in my pop culture knowledge, so forgive my ignorance when I ask this question: is Alice Krige a big deal? Because after watching this, it feels like she should be. She carries herself brilliantly in this. If anyone is looking to remake Sunset Boulevard, you’d be hard-pushed to find someone to step into Gloria Swanson’s shoes than Krige. But also, don’t remake Sunset Boulevard you dicks. Her performance is a real highlight in this, it feels slightly exaggerated, but only because the character is a fading actress, so her whole personality is exaggerated. If she was too “real” and grounded you wouldn’t have that “she used to be a star” feeling, and if she was TOO exaggerated she wouldn’t feel real, and some of the moments would come off more comedic than creepy.
The supporting cast all have their chance to shine, although you sometimes wish some of them were in it a bit more. It’s only 95 minutes long and I feel another 10 minutes or so might have helped it. There are glimpses that Malcolm McDowell’s character is highly regarded, but if the film had more time then we would have had a better glimpse of how famous he is in this universe. Is he a “known in Britain” actor, is he a “known by film buffs” actor, or is he a “respected and known by the world” actor? If we knew more about that, we would know more about the influence he had on Veronica’s life and it would help to flesh out the story. He is on verge of knighthood, but is it a “and now you’re put out to pasture” one?
I feel like “Post #metoo horror” is now a genre. In the last few years, there has been a definite increase in female-created horror films about women fighting back against male oppression and patriarchal power structures. I don’t know enough to judge whether there’s been an increase in those stories being made, or whether the ones being made now have more eyes on them, either way, stuff like this is very important to see. But since it is a delicate subject, it can be tricky to pull off well without seeming like it’s retreading old ground. There are moments where this does dip into the cliche, particularly with some of the visuals, and “this area is where witches were punished” is used a lot, to the point where it feels like it’s replaced “ancient Indian burial ground” as a horror trope. It does take it into an interesting direction though. It’s not enough that “bad shit went down here”, it’s not a therapy retreat where the people there praise the earth as being good for your health “because of all the ashes from women who were burnt as witches”, so its not enough that bad stuff happened, it’s the commercialisation of those awful events. Burning women wasn’t enough, they’re now exploiting their memories and deaths. It would be like if Dachau sold foundation powder mixed in with ashes from the rooms. It’s dark, horrific when you think about it, yet not entirely surprising. It does feel like that moment is there to influence the character, it doesn’t seem to go as deep into the notion of systematic oppression as it should.
This is the feature directorial debut of Charlotte Colbert, who also wrote it. She has a bright future in horror. Her main background is in photography and multi-media sculptures, and her knowledge of photography comes through in some of the ways the film is shot. She approaches them in a way that tells you the story with the way everything is framed, you could watch this with the sound off and still get a pretty solid idea of what is happening, based solely on the choices of shots used. Of particular note is when Veronica arrives at the lodge. Before that, you think it’s going to be a film about isolation and her losing her mind with nobody near her. So when she opens the door and is met with a room full of people you’re just as shocked as she is. Then there are a lot of really claustrophobic shots of everybody approaching her, it does a great job of putting you in her shoes.
Just because you can watch it in silence, doesn’t mean you should. Clint Mansell does a fantastic score, as he normally does. And the sound design is pretty fun throughout, there’s a moment where someone’s hand starts burning, and the sound is weirdly wonderful, it’s almost crackling, as if the world itself is coming apart.
That leads to the downside though, the film is very stop-start, it doesn’t keep momentum well at all. The fire incident, for example, doesn’t really have a narrative follow-up. The narrative is where Colbert’s inexperience as a writer shows. It tries to do much, and sometimes feels like it lacks identity. It has a lot to say, and I feel that if it tried to say less, it could end up saying more. There’s enough material here for three films, but now Colbert has put them all in the same film, it will make it harder for her to explore those themes again without it feeling like she’s retreading old ground.
In summary: a noble effort, and one with a lot to say. It’s definitely worth watching if you can, but you do feel it’s slightly on the cusp of something much better than it is.