Review by Rich Cline | 4/5

dir Samuel Bodin
scr Chris Thomas Devlin
prd Roy Lee, Andrew Childs, Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen, James Weaver, Josh Fagen
with Lizzy Caplan, Woody Norman, Antony Starr, Cleopatra Coleman, Luke Busey, Aleksandra Dragova, Jay Rincon, Anton Kottas, Steffanie Busey, Jivko Mihaylov, Iliyan Nikolov, Aleksander Asparuhov
release US 21.Jul.23,
UK 1.Sep.23
23/US Lionsgate 1h28

caplan starr coleman

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Unusually strong characters bring this atmospheric horror film to life, especially as it takes a twisted approach to issues like bullying and child abuse. First-time director Samuel Bodin uses every trick in the book to keep the audience on edge, putting us through the wringer alongside the people on-screen. It definitely helps that the adept cast bring much more to the characters than is written in the screenplay.
A week before Halloween, preteen Peter (Norman) is struggling with vile bullying from Brian (Bushey) at school. And his parents Carol and Mark (Caplan and Starr) won't let him go trick-or-treating because of a girl who went missing years ago. At the same time, he begins hearing noises at night, then interacts with a voice (Dragova) that claims to be the sister he never knew, imprisoned behind the wall by their mom and dad. At school, his teacher Miss Devine (Coleman) notices something off with Peter, but Carol dismisses her concern, offended at the suggestion.
Relentlessly creepy imagery makes sure the audience is uneasy, starting with the rotting pumpkin patch in the backyard and the absurdly grubby state of the family home. Imagery and sounds combine to make scenes unbearably tense, with several potent moments of sharp suspense along the way. There's also the growing tension as we wait to see who exactly is behind the wall, and the reveal is handled with impressive skill, nutty and terrifying in equal measure, with an added guilty pleasure when the mean kids get theirs.

Norman is excellent at the centre of the story, making Peter a hugely sympathetic character who is imaginative, quick-thinking and desperate to have a normal life. He's a seriously gifted young actor, conveying layers of personality both verbally and with his full physicality, and the script could have given him even more to work with. Caplan has a wonderful maternal presence that is tinged with panic, while Starr brings an underlying menace to his role, which perhaps is hard for him not to do after his chilling work on The Boys.

The grim overtones grow in intensity as the story continues and the horrific events take turn after violent turn. But even when it shifts into a genuinely scary monster movie finale, there's still an underlying humanity that grounds even the most artfully heightened moments. And as it touches on the repercussions of a damaged childhood, the film finds some important things to say as well.

cert 15 themes, language, violence 26.Aug.23 frf

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© 2023 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall