Secluded country roads are objectively terrifying, especially at night. If you think you know, you probably don’t; few horror films do justice to the dread of reaching a crossroads bordered in stick hedges and spying each lane stretching out into a shroud of darkness. Assumed by many filmmakers to be more enticing is the filmic focus on the enabler of travel itself; to set a camera at roadside and have it watch the ill-fated vehicle consecutively approach and depart. Never mind the prying trees, overarching on high, scratching at the sky with their skeletal branches. Nor the muddied embankments, the mound of the earth, meshed with browned leaves and browner sewage. Our attention is often divided between the starring vessel and the environment from which it is simultaneously probing and escaping. Indifference arises.
Jeremy Lovering beckons good faith from his audience because of an inherent understanding of not just the visual motifs that make up our irrational fear of nature’s edges, but also the mode by which we approach them. The majority of action in In Fear – and specifically the best action – transpires exclusively in the further secluded confines of a car’s interior in the black of night. Lovering’s camera is placed flexibly despite its restrictions, gluing to the faces of Tom (Iain de Caestecker) and Lucy (Alice Englert) as their anxiety over ever reaching their hotel destination compounds tenfold. And what more petrifying a view to share with them, than the sight of an alien world on the other side of the windscreen? The empty lanes hurtle toward us at a quickening pace, providing no discernible clue as to the nowhere of which they lead.
A scarcity of light enhances the sense of futility. Lovering makes do with little more than the artificial flecks of light that populate the car’s interior, and the world outside is illuminated to negligible effect by paltry front headlights. The subtraction of visual clarity creates a realistic approximation of the strain on vision in this nightmare scenario, a handicap that feeds into an already existing discomfort.
Tom and Lucy see what we see: not very much at all. But what we do see is just enough to fulfil our fears. The naked country roads stand out in the midst of an encroaching darkness. For full effect, this horror dispenses with enough superfluous visual elements for only a slither of functional fright to remain. It’s the reason why ghosts only appear in the dark, naturally.
Tom and Lucy also know what we know: not much at all. Lovering ensured the authenticity of the performances by keeping his lead actors – forgive the pun – in the dark about the movement of the plot. So the pair have little clue what to make of hitchhiker Max (Allen Leech) when he firstly ricochets off their car bonnet and then joins them on its inside, taunting and jesting as they continue to make little sense of where it is they’re going. Is Max the masked man they – and we – saw stalking in the field only minutes ago? At this point, it’s anyone’s guess.
The plot duly thickens and ramps up upon Max’s introduction, applying a layer of psychological inquisitiveness that Lovering must imagine advances his material into something more than just sensorial fright. It’s the usual yarn about man’s capacity to commit acts of atrocity and too well-trodden ground to constitute anything truly original, even in this most refreshing of battlegrounds.
In Fear loses some of its visual vitality the moment tempers boil over and spill out into the expanses beyond the vehicle, at which point the bubbling tension releases into less-than-gratifying violent decisiveness.
But Lovering’s most grievous error of all is in fact his failure to capitalise on the terror of his initial interior perspectives through a lack of equally subtracted sound design. The vision of the roads and all that surrounds them is slight and discomforting, and yet there is no proportional diminution of noise to complement this effect. The same old hammering strings hinder the efforts of the visual plane, resulting in a half-completed horror.
The common cliché is that silence speaks louder than words, though it’s never been more pertinent than here; these lonely lanes would benefit from an eerie quiet, a calm that signifies an impending evil. Just as ghosts dwell in darkness, unwelcome whispers move in the still air. Deafening violins do not enter the equation.
Sundance London is over for its second year. It’s a festival still feeling through its early stages, teething, emulating the formula of its Utah counterpart and hoping to one day strike out on its own terms.
The modest programme had been carefully assembled; I noticed several thematic overlaps, though this can easily be attributed to the predisposal of Sundance submissions in catering to tastes for coming-of-age yarns, quirky comedies and dramas centred on dysfunctional families.
Indeed, during one of the weekend panels, Robert Redford more or less clarified the festival’s preference to those features which emphasise heavily the strength of their script and performances. The aforementioned categories are far more inclined – through big-name casting and prolific screenwriters – to emphasise these aspects of their film than any radical aesthetic innovation. This is, and always been, the line in the sand that separates Sundance from the likes of, say, Cannes and Venice.
I’ve largely retained my initial impressions of the films I saw this week, although a few have gone up and down in my estimation upon careful consideration. Upstream Color, for instance, keeps on soaring, though only to a point. On the other hand, Blood Brother is descending the longer it sticks in my mind. I can’t help but feel that there were instances where, even faced with the impending death of a child, we were nudged just that little bit extra in order to shed our tears. Overall, the film seems less of a documentary about its ostensible subject matter, and more of a cinematic love letter from director Steve Hoover to his friend Rocky Anna whom he so very much admires for good reason.
I regrettably missed out on a few notable screenings. The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete, History of the Eagles: Part One and The Summit will be viewed in due course. I’m most devastated that I let Blackfish pass me by, though I hear from all accounts that it’s nothing less than “fucking astounding”.
Here are my arbitrary rankings for Sundance London 2013:
- Sleepwalk with Me
- Upstream Color
- God Loves Uganda
- The Look of Love
- In a World…
- Muscle Shoals
- In Fear
- Blood Brother
- The Kings of Summer
- The Moo Man
- Running from Crazy
- Metro Manila
- Touchy Feely
- Emanuel and the Truth about Fishes