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Review by Rich Cline |
dir Christopher Smith
scr David Beton, Ray Lines, Dean Bogdanovich
prd Laurie Cook, Jason Newmark, Maya Amsellem, Sharon Harel
with Jessica Brown Findlay, John Heffernan, Sean Harris, John Lynch, Anya McKenna-Bruce, Adam Hugill, Jean St Clair, Jason Thorpe, Amy Trigg, Nigel Travis, Cokey Falkow, Matthew Clarke
release UK 26.Mar.21,
20/UK Shudder 1h37
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Based on the true story of Britain's most haunted house, this period horror has a wonderfully earthy tone that quickly gets under the skin with its augmented ambient sounds and riotous collisions of floral patterns in wallpaper and clothing. With an unusually complex script, this is another expertly directed freak-out from Christopher Smith, mixing offhanded humour with a growing sense of dread that leads to properly scary nastiness.
In rural late-1930s England, Marianne (Findlay) moves into a ludicrously enormous new home with her preacher husband Linus (Heffernan) and her young daughter Adelaide (McKenna-Bruce). Linus worries that his congregation is too superstitious, led by knowing parishioner Harry (Harris), who tells them that they're darkly connected to the manor's violent religious history. But Bishop Malachi (Lynch) has his own ominous pronouncements to make, and he doesn't hesitate to threaten anyone who veers from the official line. He's also scowlingly disapproving of Marianne's fallen-woman past, even though Linus loyally protects her.
Strange noises in this new house trigger grisly visions, while further foreboding touches are provided by the devilishly wild-eyed Harry, news reports of Hitler's rise in Germany and Adelaide's nightmare-inducing collection of creepy dolls. There's also a mirror with a sinister mind of its own. The entire village seems to be completely entangled in these supernatural goings on, with particularly fearsome activity from the church itself. And of course no one heeds the usual warnings to get out before it's too late.
Findlay and Heffernan find terrific balance in their warm relationship, as Marianne's lustiness hits the obstacle of Linus' crippling fear of sex. This adds sharply well-played tension between them on several layers, from simmering frustration to more blatant resentments as things go from bad to much worse. And McKenna-Bruce has superb presence in a smaller role as an increasingly strong-willed child. Side roles add plenty of vivid colour, especially with magnetic veterans like Harris and Lynch lurking in the shadows.
Even when things go a bit bonkers in the final act, this is a far more serious dramatic film than the genre and rather random title would suggest, as Smith skilfully establishes the unnerving atmosphere while deepening characters and adding fascinating details throughout the situation. The mash-up of religion, politics, history and superstition in the plot is sharply well-observed to add resonant angles to the characters and their interaction. This also makes everything a lot more unsettled, and occasionally even terrifying.
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© 2021 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall
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