Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Jenkins is good, doing a lot with what she’s given. The weak link in the film is Hurley." | Photo: courtesy of Frightfest

Most of you will no doubt be familiar with the story of the Pied Piper: how in 1248 the people of Hamelin secured the services of a travelling musician who promised to rid them of their rodent infestation, and how, when he was true to his word and they reneged on theirs, he took their children in lieu of the promised payment. It’s a story which you can’t fail to be confronted with in Hamelin itself, which has built an entire tourist industry around it. This is just another cringe factor for teenager Amy (Mia Jenkins), who is already unhappy about having her life derailed so that her mother Liz (Elizabeth Hurley) can take up a teaching job at the international school (fictionally) located there. She tries to be a good sport about it, but after a disturbing incident at the school, she can’t shake the feeling that something is deeply amiss there.

Screened as part of Frightfest 2023, Piper is aimed squarely at a teenage audience and possesses a certain cringe factor for older viewers, but that’s not to say that every film is obliged to suit everyone’s tastes. This one is part supernatural horror and part romance, as Amy quickly becomes involved with a young man called Luca (Jack Stewart) who approaches her in the street with a magic trick. He looks about ten years older than her (though the difference between the actors is only four) which, at that age, is a bit disconcerting, but Liz doesn’t pay much attention to what she’s doing anyway, and Amy finds herself receiving much more motherly attention after following him out to the traveller camp where he lives. There is also a warning, though: she is told that she has been marked, and that she is in danger.

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What follows is open to interpretation – just how much of it is real, how much supernatural and how much dream is uncertain, but regardless, it’s an important journey for Amy, who is at a point in her life where she needs to start asserting her independence in meaningful ways – starting with taking a more critical look at her parents, both of whom have been keeping secrets from her. Her father (played by the film’s director, Anthony Waller) lives elsewhere but remains involved in her life, and becomes concerned when she starts exhibiting symptoms of a mysterious illness. Her sleeping pattern becomes erratic and she seems to be suffering from surreptitious attacks by rats. When these have reached a certain point, she is warned, the Piper will come for her.

Why has Amy found herself in this situation? Who was the Piper in life, and what secrets do the travelling people know about him? What is in the medicine that they have given to Amy? The film sets up a lot of mysteries and interconnects them fairly well. In doing this, Waller is careful about how he represents the travelling people, mindful of how others like them have historically been mistreated, and he situates the film’s more exotic elements within the town itself, which (in this fictionalised version) provides some suitably Gothic locations.

The romance is overblown, with a sweeping soundtrack, sunlit meadows, swirling Autumn leaves and bad poetry, but arguably we are seeing it from Amy’s youthful perspective, and the ways in which her fantasy colours her interpretation of what’s happening around her is important to the plot. Stewart is a decent enough actor and Jenkins is good, doing a lot with what she’s given. The weak link in the film is Hurley, who has never been very convincing as an actor but is absolutely dreadful here, overstating every line as if she were trying to get a teacher’s attention in a school play, so full of ham that she could open her own delicatessen. She may be the big name of the back of which the film hopes to attract audiences, but she requires far more suspension of disbelief than any aspect of the plot.

The situation is not helped by incidental music which sounds as if it comes from a Nineties point and click video game, but – a few bits of dodgy CGI aside – there are some nice visual ideas, and Waller knows how to make the most of his locations. As long as they can overlook Hurley’s contribution, young people with a fondness for romance and the supernatural should find something in it to satisfy them. As for the Piper, it doesn’t feel like a definitive version of his story, but it does add some interesting ideas to his mythos.

Reviewed on: 27 Aug 2023
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After her mother takes up the position of history teacher at the Hamelin International School in Germany, a teenager finds herself haunted by increasingly disturbing visions of the legendary piper, and a dark secret is revealed.

Director: Anthony Waller

Writer: Anthony Waller, Duncan Kennedy

Starring: Elizabeth Hurley, Mia Jenkins, Jack Stuart, Robert Daws

Year: 2023

Runtime: 105 minutes

Country: US


Frightfest 2023

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