Deeply affecting, works both as a drama and a horror.
Some directors just ‘get’ horror. Adam Macdonald, with his second feature after 2014’s tense survival flick Backcountry, has a film that improves on his first effort (which was already pretty good) in every way, delivering a poignant and deeply felt drama that, in certain moments, is genuinely terrifying. MacDonald understands horror as a vehicle for wider themes and fundamental human stories, within which the ‘horror’ is an expression of the protagonist’s own personal hell.
Leah Reyes (Nicole Muñoz, just 23 and tremendously talented, already with an impressive resume) is a high schooler and an outcast. At the beginning of the film, we see a schoolmate shoulder her aggressively as he passes her in the hall, for no reason, leaving Leah stunned. She hangs out with a small group of other goth kids, including close friend Janice (Chloe Rose) and crush Aaron (Eric Osborne). Just like the shoulder bump early on, Macdonald establishes in only a few scenes that this is a tightknit group; it’s easy to buy their friendship. Why is it so difficult in other films?
At home, we realise Leah’s stylistic front is holding up probably a much bigger deluge of internal conflict than her friends. Her mother is grieving for the death of her husband, Leah’s father, and the two of them have a terribly strained relationship because of it. Mrs Reyes (a magnificent Laurie Holden) is an unpredictable mess as a mother. One minute she’s lost in a void of thoughts, unable to even acknowledge her daughter, at another she’s up early making pancakes and taking her daughter out shopping. The film works as well as a horror as it does a drama about grief, leaning heavily on the fraught but painfully real relationship excellently performed by Holden and Muñoz.
The horror takes time to arrive, but the setting deep within the woods and Christian Bielz’s chilly, washed out cinematography promises eerie things to come. Macdonald shoots with fewer wide shots of the scenery than he did in Backcountry, instead opting for tight, over the shoulder shots and shaky camera work in the intense scenes.
Things slip seamlessly into the supernatural with a particularly nasty fight, at which point Leah responds the way any angst-ridden teenager with a penchant for the occult would: she puts a curse on her mother. To say any more would spoil the creeping dread and eventual, horrific repercussions. This is a film for anyone who felt like their own adolescence was a horror movie. Macdonald and Muñoz get it—if you’re like me, you will too.
Monster Fest 2017 ran from November 23 – 26. More reviews and coverage from the festival to come.