This piece comes to us from none other than Ireland. Now, I haven’t seen many Irish horror films (that I can think of) but the plot sounded interesting and it got some great festival buzz, so I thought I would check it out!
Here is the IMDB page for the film: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6198946/
A couple of things that we can speak about right off the bat —
- The logline reads: Trying to escape her broken past, Sarah O’Neill is building a new life on the fringes of a backwood rural town with her young son Chris. A terrifying encounter with a mysterious neighbor shatters her fragile security, throwing Sarah into a spiraling nightmare of paranoia and mistrust, as she tries to uncover if the disturbing changes in her little boy are connected to an ominous sinkhole buried deep in the forest that borders their home.
This is too long for a quick summary, but it does a good job of establishing the characters, the conflicts, the potential for horror and the limited-actor/limited-location of the story. For horror writers specifically, coming up with a logline that is snappy and establishes that this is a high-concept story that can be done on a budget is a must-have skill. In fact, before you even really begin to workshop your script, I would make sure that your logline is a solid as it can be because, as Hank has said before – what is the point of having the best script ever written if you cannot get anyone to read it?
B. This is a contained horror which is another big selling point – it takes place primarily in one house and with some exteriors in the woods, but very few effects and limited actors means that this can be done on a budget which will make an exec/financier happy to hear.
So, let’s get into the story:
The film begins with a woman (Sarah) and her son (Chris) fixing up a creepy house in the middle of nowhere – but there is no way that could go wrong, right?
Sarah is running from some unnamed trauma – though we get hints at what it is (spoiler – an abusive husband) this never really comes back into play or is fully defined which I thought was a bit of a missed opportunity.
As Sarah and Chris begin to explore the home and the surrounding woods, they make some creepy discoveries, such as:
— There is a massive sinkhole in their backyard that no one seems all that concerned about.
— There is a crazy woman wandering around their property – apparently, this is a woman who once killed her own child because she thought he was an impostor.
— Once Chris runs into the woods after a fight, the boy who returns home seems… different.
Now, that is a quick summary of what is going on in the film – you’ve seen this general plot before in other features such as Changeling and Goodnight Mommy, so let’s get to what did and did not work in the piece:
This is a film that is low on plot, but big on atmosphere.
Now, if you can make this come through in your writing, that is wonderful and will certainly help, but be careful! If you aren’t getting the haunted atmosphere across in every scene, every line, every beat, then your script will just seem like an empty excuse for inflating page count.
With this project, specifically, there were lots of silent takes and long moments of very little action, but I was invested because I was waiting for the scare and for something creepy to come along.
It is a very limited actor piece.
This is great if you can pull it off. It is almost entirely just the mother (Seána Kerslake) and the son (James Quinn Markey) which will help your pitch for a low-budget, high-concept horror piece.
Quickly, another bit about the limited actor scope – both of these actors are not names, yet carry the film reasonably well. This is great – you don’t need a name for a horror piece necessarily, as long as you have a willing lead (or leads) who can help sell the character(s) and story.
Another positive is the chemistry between the two – they feel like a lived-in version of a mother and young son, complete with little in-jokes and games that they share. This is great and I will give credit where it is due, as it is not just the director and actors, but the writing that really makes these two characters (at least at the beginning) feel real and likable.
There are some genuinely creepy moments.
Again, a lot of credit goes to the direction, but the writer had to come up with the set-pieces or general scenes that gave me chills.
A couple of examples:
— When Sarah (the mom) is spying on Chris (the son) in his room and he finds and then eats a live spider. The voyeur perspective that we watch this happen in and the material itself make this scene very unsettling.
— When Sarah stops her car for the Woman in the White Gown and we watch for an extended take as this clearly deranged woman rushes up to the car. Because the camera traps us in the car with Sarah and Chris, we feel the tension and claustrophobia that they must be feeling as they are approached by the Woman.
This piece relies on visuals, not dialogue.
In fact, there is very little dialogue in this film in general, which is great because it adds to the atmosphere and tension and also make the viewer a bit uneasy, waiting for the next scare.
Now, there is a flip-side to this, in my personal opinion, as many things were left unanswered, which isn’t always a problem, but with this feature several important threads and scenes are left without resolution or explanation, which left me a little bit frustrated.
What Needed Work:
The third act.
In my opinion, this is two-thirds of a great film. However, it falls apart in the third act when Sarah decides that the Chris who has come home to her is not the real Chris and so locks the “Fake Chris” (as he is so lovingly referred to in the subtitles on my tv) in the basement and burns down her house with him inside.
Honestly, to me, that would have been an effective enough place to end it as it leaves it up to the viewer to decide: was she crazy or was she right? What happens to Sarah now? What if that was the real Chris?
But, alas, the film continues on from that point – Sarah then goes to find the “Real Chris” in the sinkhole because… reasons. There is really no explanation for how she knows that he is in there or why he would be in there, but in an effort to move this review along, I will leave that alone.
Once she has fallen into the sinkhole, she finds the real Chris… I guess? And then Sarah has to fight a dozen CGI monsters and escape. Then it just ends, leaving us scratching our heads and wondering what exactly happened.
I recently read an interview with the director who said that he wanted to leave things ambiguous, but there is a difference between leaving things ambiguous and not explaining anything or leaving the viewer completely confused as to what they just watched/read.
Truly, nothing is answered and all of the character’s decisions after the school play (in which Sarah publicly freaks out and leaves her child alone in the school building) are irrational and unmotivated.
Finally, themes are not followed up on or completed in a satisfactory manner. The way it ends is simply with Sarah and Chris having moved into a new house somewhere in the city and… I guess her fear and/or psychosis was cured?
This is disappointing, as I really wanted this to be an exploration of parenthood, how when children grow up, sometimes their parent’s don’t recognize them and must make peace with the fact that their child has become their own person.
Instead, we are left with questions upon questions, like:
What does the sinkhole represent? Descent into madness? The darkness lurking within all of us?
Why? Why is this happening? Why Sarah? What is going on?
Was the hole in the ground inside us all along?
Missed opportunities for tension and horror.
As I stated previously, one of the biggest examples of this comes in the form of the never-seen abusive husband. We are never specifically told that he was abusive, but get hints that he was (a scar on Sarah’s head, Chris mentioning that Dad makes Sarah sad, etc.) and that he is what Sarah and Chris are running from. However, he never makes an appearance, is never integral to the plot (in terms of a “why they don’t go into town” or “why they don’t seek help kind of help” explanation) and seems, ultimately, like a real missed opportunity for conflict, horror and tension.
Also, the Woman in the White Dress, who offered some of our biggest scares and who could have (in another film) been a representation of what Sarah could turn into if she were to let her psychosis run wild, simply dies off-screen in a non-gory, non-brutal way (not that I’m a sadist, but it is a horror feature). This is a missed opportunity to raise the stakes and keep us on the edge of our seats.
Finally, halfway through this film I was very into it, as it was similar to The Babadook or Lights Out in terms of raising the question: Is what is happening psychosis or genuinely supernatural?
Unfortunately, the rushed ending kind of ruins any ambiguity. As discussed previously, the end stretches out for too long and weirdly became The Descent which is a major tonal shift and seems tacked on and out of place.
Ultimately, I would give this a RENT IT review – if only for the first two-thirds where the tension and atmosphere is really well-done and there is a lot to learn from this take on a familiar concept.
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