By BRUCE DENNILL
The Forest / Directed by Jason Zada / PGH
Before I Wake / Directed by Michael Flanagan / PGH
Get Out /Directed by Jordan Peele / 16LPH
Shut In / Directed by Farren Blackburn / 16V
Split / Directed by M Night Shyamalan / 16VL
There seems to be a thin line between horror and thriller films – both are written, shot and edited to keep you on edge and wondering who will survive whatever odd scenario is being presented, and how they will manage. This selection of films offers a range of factors that are superficially in their favour, from particularly creative scripts to big-name stars and directors, with end results that sometimes belie the impact of any of these in real terms.
The Forest is a smaller feature than many here when considering budgets and resources, but it has at its core a real-life phenomenon that is stranger than fiction – the Aokigahara Forest in Japan, where hundreds of people from around the world go to commit suicide. The disappearance of a student into this naturally hackle-raising environment puts her twin sister Sara (Natalie Dormer) on a quest to track down her sibling. The documentary aspect of the piece – giving viewers a peek into the forest or at least a chilling sense of what it’s like – gives it a depth beyond the otherwise solid narrative about a situation engineered by a disturbed villain with a flair for the dramatic. The real scares on top of the manufactured ones make this a diverting watch.
Before I Wake has everything it needs to comfortably attract mainstream interest, with Kate Bosworth and Thomas Jane as a couple who become foster parents to eight-year-old Cody (the always impressive Jacob Tremblay) and a storyline that allows for a huge amount of visual beauty. In short, that involves the supernatural way in which the boy’s dreams manifest as real, tangible objects. This is lovely when he’s in a good space, where butterflies materialise in his room, but it’s less desirable when he has a nightmare. There’s huge potential in this set-up, but sadly the film features that regular Hollywood slip-up where a good idea is pushed – unnecessarily – too far. Simplifying the concept while keeping the style and feel might’ve been a good call, as the impetus from a strong start is not sustained.
Get Out has been positioned by awards voters and many of its fans as a sort of game changer in the horror genre, and it is certainly a smart and original take on a well-worn theme – an outsider struggling to come to terms with the attitudes of a prejudiced community into which he is suddenly introduced. That it is smart and savvy comes as no surprise, as writer and director Jordan Peele is a leading voice in cutting, and often fearless, comedic satire. Daniel Kaluuya gives an excellent central performance as Chris, a young black man invited to meet his white girlfriend’s (Allison Williams) family for the first time. Peele cleverly makes the horror a function of the brittle sheen Chris’ hosts present as their accepting, non-racist façade. For much of the film, it is the suspicion of what the characters might be capable of, rather than what they’re actually doing, that is unsettling. When matters do kick off, it’s satisfyingly edgy stuff, though the graphic nature of the closing scenes rather tempers the more subtle psychological build-up.
In Shut In, Naomi Watts is the central character and biggest name (though Oliver Platt plays a supporting role), and the horror/thriller trope utilised here is the harsh storm that cuts off a vulnerable person in an isolated spot. Add to this that a patient Watt’s child psychologist character is treating goes missing and that she then presumes it is his ghost that is haunting her and her bed-ridden son, and you, quite soon into the film, have something of a mish-mash of worn genre tricks, none of which really sits believably with any of the others. Watts does her best with what there is to work with, but the film never builds enough momentum to make it gratifying on any level.
Split comes from writer and director M Night Shyamalan, and his early success with the groundbreaking The Sixth Sense continues to be more of a burden then a blessing as he again fails to live up to anything like the gut-punch connection that film made with viewers. Split features a good deal of creepiness, thanks mostly to its protagonist, Kevin, being a man with 23 distinct personalities, as revealed to his long-suffering but incredibly patient psychiatrist. James McAvoy plays Kevin, and is an excellent choice for the role, being an actor capable of almost literally throwing himself into a part – and all the more so when that part is structured like this one. Unsurprisingly, though, the average viewer, not being a trained psychiatrist, will almost certainly find it difficult to keep tabs on many of Kevin’s sub-personae, and thus be unsure of who exactly is doing what (and that while, often, only one actor is on screen). Again, it’s a question of high concept not being effectively supported by sensible extrapolation and clear, solid filmmaking.