Directed by Gary Sinyor,
Starring Jasmine Hyde, Richard Flood, Simon Cotton
A horror film from the director of Leon the Pig Farmer, something of an unusual and quirky Brit film gem? Yes, that got my attention. Gemma (Jasmine Hyde) and Will have a seemingly ideal life – a gorgeous home, a lovely wee boy, decent, comfortable income. But the worst possible pain is visited upon them – their little lad is killed in a freak accident, leaving husband and wife bereft, both terribly stricken with grief and also guilt (what if one or the other had done something differently, would the accident not have happened, was it their fault?), but both also start to react in very different ways.
Gemma suddenly, terrifyingly find her vision going, inexplicably. Doctors are split between whether it is a rare but genuine neurological condition or some panic-attack type reaction to the tremendous stress, grief and guilt. Medication helps, but doesn’t entirely stop these episodes, a sudden loss of control, of fear and vulnerability. Is this medical irregularity or am (understandable) reaction to her awful loss manifesting physically? As we see a lot of the film from her perspective, this colours our view of proceedings.
Will, however, seems to be retreating into the realms of the supernatural and also the religious (largely the same thing to some, of course). He’s increasingly convinced he can hear his son’s voice, especially in his room, he clings to a talking bear that has his boy’s voice recorder on its speech synthesiser. He tells her he has gone to heaven and reacts furiously when she says she doesn’t believe in that, and then he starts to ponder if god is punishing them for some sin. What sin had they committed, she asks him angrily, and even if they had, what sin could come with the price of an innocent child’s life?
They’re falling apart in different ways from the loss, when an old friend, Paul, who is renovating some lovely old buildings in the Lake District invites them to come up and stay in one of his just-completed guest cottages. It’s that glorious Lakes scenery in the off-season, not so packed with tourists, quieter, peaceful, little in the way of mobile signals, certainly no wifi, a real retreat, taking the Windermere ferry across the water, to gorgeous, old stone farm buildings. But peaceful surroundings don’t always bring peace, and both are increasingly spiralling down different paths with their grief driving them, and when Will decides to rush back home (because he can’t hear his dead son in this place) Paul seems to become closer to Gemma, but does he have secrets of his own?
The soul-destroying grief of losing a child is not exactly new to the horror genre, of course, it has been mined for its emotional and dramatic possibilities many times (Don’t Look Now being a classic example, or Wake Wood a more recent one). Here Sinyor deals with it sensitively – is any of this real, the voices they think they hear? Is it all in their heads, their minds tortured by unimaginable loss and survivor guilt, conjuring phantoms of the life that once meant everything to them? The film walks a delicate line on this for the most part, and this gives it a believable feel that contrasts with the possibility of more supernatural elements, and much of this is down to the director trusting his small, intimate cast to convincingly create believable emotions the viewer can’t help but empathise with.
With only a handful of briefly-appearing supporting cast, the three main actors have to carry the film, and they do so exceedingly well. Cotton’s quiet, reserved, helpful Paul (whose apparently still waters hint at deeper currents waiting to burst the banks), Flood’s Will going from grief to increasingly deranged as his mind tries to cope, a man strugglign with not just his emotions but his own mental equilibrium. But most of all Jasmine Hyde’s Gemma. The visual distortions brought on by her panics are shared with the viewer’s perspective, so we can’t help but share in her fear and dislocation when they happen, to see events from her perspective. More than that, when we see her face Hyde subtly conveys that mounting panic and fear through her expressions, her body language. A lesser performer may have gone down the hysterical route, but Hyde gives a more measured interpretation, which again is more believable and grounds the film, which works well with the hints of more supernatural elements (long a good rule in fantasy, you can have the fantastical elements but they work best when served with a believable, real-world element too).
And where are these three damaged people going and where does the truth lie? Ah, well, for that you’d need to watch the film, wouldn’t you?! And that’s something I recommend – this is an unusual kind of horror, mixing possible supernatural elements with more realistic elements, but both as reactions to dreadful loss and the strains it puts on all three. It could have gone down the full spook show, or the haunted country house, but instead it all really revolves around the emotions of these three actors, who play off each other extremely well, and Sinyor uses that intimate ensemble’s skills, and the pacing of the story to build an increasingly troubled, disturbing atmosphere, thick with emotions, which is far more unsettling than a straight, more direct horror. An unusual and intriguing Brit film.
The Unseen is released on DVD and Video on Demand in the UK from February 12th