Caveat
"No matter how good everything else is, it’s impossible to make a good film from a weak script." | Photo: Courtesy of FrightFest

If you’ve ever been seriously down on your luck, you’ll know that £200 a day sounds like a great bit of money. Getting it wouldn’t involve much work, Isaac (Jonathan French) is assured. It’s just for a bit of babysitting – for a young adult woman who is schizophrenic, essentially harmless but prone to getting in trouble if she’s left unattended, and vulnerable at the moment because she insists on staying in a remote house where her father committed suicide, as she’s struggling to process his death. Isaac is cautious but he can’t afford to turn it down. It’s only when he’s been driven out there that he realises the house is on an island, and he can’t swim. It’s only once he’s been rowed out there – in a boat which will return to the far shore – that he’s told that, to keep the young woman calm, he will need to be locked into a harness attached to a long chain, which will only allow him to access limited parts of the house.

Most people would try to back out at this point, and, indeed, Isaac does, but he’s unable to assert himself sufficiently against the much wealthier and more confident ‘friend’ who talked him into this. It soon becomes clear that he’s mentally fragile himself, recovering from an accident. He spends a lot of time looking at a picture of him with his brother, giving the impression that the latter has died. A neglected-looking dog (the excellent Jed) outside the house offers a friendly welcome, but as he’s tied up too, they are limited in how they can interact. At least his charge, Olga (Leila Sykes), seems harmless enough, sitting against a wall in a catatonic stupor – until she starts wandering round with a crossbow. As pictures start turning round and falling off the walls, doors mysteriously open and close and a drumming rabbit toy begins to hint at a sinister presence, Isaac realises that he’s way out of his depth – but at this point, there’s not much he can do about it.

Copy picture

There’s some good work here. Damian Mc Carthy, on his first feature, proves a capable director. The scenes with the rabbit are particularly well put together, and he understands where lingering on a particular object is more effective than cutting back and forth. he establishes a good rhythm and knows when to break it without leaning too heavily on cliché, even if a derivative score undermines that somewhat. Unfortunately, as a writer, he still has a lot to learn, and no matter how good everything else is, it’s impossible to make a good film from a weak script.

Some of the problems will be obvious to everyone. There are numerous easy ways to get out of the harness, yet these are ignored for most of the running time, before our desperate hero resorts to a more difficult approach. Several scenes rely on characters trying to cut through drywall, and they’re using the proper tool to do it (Mc Carthy has worked in construction), but as they don’t care if it gets damaged, it’s unclear why they don’t just kick their way through it instead, especially after it’s weakened. Although the sound design is very good, we barely hear the chain, which ought to be moving in other parts of the house as well as next to Isaac. Although he moves around a lot of corners, it never snags, and sometimes we see it trailing along behind him at hip height, not dragging as it should – something which is quite distracting in a film where we’re supposed to be alert to visual oddities.

The real problems here lie deeper, however. Mc Carthy has made a classic mistake in writing a lot of stuff that he likes and then being unwilling to part with it. The central story is convoluted to begin with, and the addition of several adjacent mysteries means that there are too many possible answers to each question raised along the way, depriving viewers of the opportunity to figure it out themselves and, in some cases, making the characters’ own reasoning fall apart where it shouldn’t.

French is very impressive in the lead, and carries the film so well that for most of its running time it’s watchable despite these problems. He makes it work emotionally where logic fails, and the combination of vulnerability, courage and inventiveness which he brings to his character makes him easy to root for. Sykes is also good. Her performance is a breath of fresh air after a century of crude an exploitative cinematic depictions of schizophrenia. Evidently untreated, Olga is a character who follows her own logic, sometimes seeming very ordinary, sometimes just subtly out of step; unpredictable yet internally consistent. For this, McCarthy also deserves praise. There’s an element of tragedy about some of her interactions with Isaac, whereby they seem to need each other’s help yet be unable to engage successfully because of their irreconcilable differences in perspective.

To sum up, this is a massively overambitious first feature which really struggles as a result, but nevertheless showcases talents worthy of notice. One hopes that Mc Carthy will learn from his mistakes and go on to future projects with a better idea what he’s doing, and that others will be able to use this film as a springboard for their careers. In the meantime, despite it over-egging the pudding somewhat, it may provide some entertainment to fans of haunted houses.

Reviewed on: 24 Feb 2022
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An amnesiac drifter accepts a strange job from his old landlord: to look after his niece, a psychologically troubled woman living in an abandoned house on an isolated island.

Director: Damian McCarthy

Writer: Damian McCarthy

Starring: Ben Caplan, Tiffany-Ellen Robinson, Jonathan French, Conor Dwane, Jed

Year: 2020

Runtime: 88 minutes

Country: UK

Festivals:

Frightfest 2020

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