Dir. Vincenzo Natali
Written by Brian King
Starring Abigail Breslin, Peter Outerbridge, Michelle Nolden, Stephen McHattie
Cool concept (GROUNDHOG DAY with ghosts!) brought to the screen serviceably (but no more) by Vincenzo Natali (CUBE, SPLICE). Natali has been the go-to guy for the better part of two decades to make high-concept and ingenious sci-fi/horror concept movies intriguing enough that even though they’re executed only about a notch or two above a SyFy channel original movie, they still manage to captivate. He didn’t write this one, which means the one thing he used to be able to bring to the table can’t help him here, but it turns out to be fine because this Brian King guy, whoever he is, ended up writing pretty much a perfect Vincenzo Natali screenplay anyway. It starts out clever, gradually gets a little too clever for its own good, but still manages to endear itself through its imaginative premise more than its lax execution.
The film begins with teenage Lisa (Abigail Breslin, SIGNS), a gothy grump who seems to be the only person in her family to realize that they’re all living the same day over and over. Before she decides to drive a groundhog off a cliff, though, she begins to suspect that there’s some ghostly shenanigans happening here -- a suspicion strengthened somewhat when she’s unexpectedly visited by a malevolent Stephen McHattie (EXIT HUMANITY) who warns her against trying to figure out what’s happening. But why is her endless tedium of repetition suddenly shattered by minor but jarring changes? And what’s up with these glimpses of another family living in her house? Who exactly is haunting who? I guess it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that the traditional haunted-house rummage through old newspapers to find the dark secret of all this unpleasantness becomes a little more interesting when Abigail realizes she’s actually a bigger part of it than one might expect.
|Mirror's on the fritz again.|
Academy-award-nominated Breslin (for LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE. Jesus, what was that about?) doesn’t seem to be trying super hard in her somewhat stereotypical tweeny role, but she’s OK, gets the job done. McHattie is great in a smallish role -- it’s always fun to see him and he rarely gets a nice showy role like this, he’s real menacing and hateable here. The rest of the cast ranges from serviceable to decent (Peter Outerbridge from LAND OF THE DEAD is a standout), but there’s not really a ton of meat here outside the twisty plot. Consequently, the whole enterprise would have benefitted from more stylish direction; Natali’s pedestrian framing, dated editing and disinterested lighting don’t really pull their weight in elevating a good script to great cinema. It’s all fine, but you can’t help but imagine a better version of this with a production more attenuated to its needs. Considering that parts take place during significantly different eras, for example, they’re kind of disappointingly undifferentiated. Jumping through time between the 30s, 80s, and 2010s in solving a nearly century-old mystery ought to be a little more jarring. The production design, like everything else, is sufficient, but I wish they’d tried to take it a little further into period detail, the way HOUSE OF THE DEVIL or BLACK DYNAMITE did.* Likewise, there’s a bunch of glaring symbolism here (butterflies in jars, the repeated theme from Peter and the Wolf**, a haunted dollhouse), a nice effort but alas nothing which ever really adds up to anything meaningful or particularly coherent.
|Anytime I see a movie where somebody is wearing shades for no reason, I assume Rowdy Roddy Piper made them do it.|
A lot of the movie is kind of like that. The ideas are so much fun that you can’t help imagining a movie where they had a little more impact. No getting around it: a lot of the movie is put together in a sort of mediocre way. But what the hell, it ends up succeeding anyway purely through the strength of its story. However anemic the direction, a careful unravelling (and, blessedly, well-paced) mystery like this is too invigorating to resist. Getting sucked into young Lisa’s quest for answers is inevitable; you might wish it hit a little harder, but you can't deny its basic appeal. Natali doesn’t bring anything to the party, but at least he manages not to bungle a good thing. That ain’t nothin’. Not all premises this good manage to tell a genuinely entertaining story. This one does, and so maybe we ought to be thankful to occasionally get a solid minor pleasure rather than a fascinating ambitious failure. Hopefully this was enough of a break to get Natali behind the typewriter again, though: imagine a script like this in the hands of a David Cronenberg, a Ti West. That prospect is enough to haunt any serious horror fan.
(Side note, MINOR SPOILERS: I wonder why the modern girl Lisa communicates with needed someone else to possess her body just to fight it out with an equally possessed dad? Seems lazy. This chick can't figure out to kick the guy who's trying to kill her without someone intervening from another plane of existence? Fucking millennials, amiright?)
*One clever idea: the hand-cranking cinematography for the part set in the 30s is a hoot, though it’s also kind of a cutesy distraction right at the finale.
**Listening to that Peter and the Wolf theme over and over makes me realize movies just don’t have strong musical themes anymore. When was the last time you went to a movie and came out humming the theme? The last one I can think of was Harry Potter, and that was from way back in 2001. I mean, there are lots of good, atmospheric scores I've heard since then, but that's different from something genuinely catchy.