Dir: Matthew Butler-Hart
Shore of the Dead
In a horror landscape terrorised by big-budget slasher remakes, twisting psychodramas and haunted doll sequels, you could be forgiven for thinking that a certain genre is down to its dying breaths: the gothic supernatural thriller. The husband and wife team behind British independent company Fizz and Ginger are aiming to inject new life into the style with their latest feature, The Isle.
The late 1800s. Aboard a lifeboat, three shipwreck survivors drift aimlessly. They’ve already lost any supplies, are rapidly losing their bearings, and will soon lose all hope. On the verge of despair, out of the gloom they finally spy land, washing up somewhere around the Scottish coast. Greeted by an intrigued but wary harbourmaster, they discover that the island they’ve stumbled upon is home to very few people indeed. But many secrets.
Holing up with a local farmer, Captain Gosling (Alex Hassell) becomes suspicious when one of his fellow survivors doesn’t, er… survive. And so begins the drip feed of eerie revelations connected to the community’s past. Conleth Hill (Game of Thrones’ Lord Varys), is the sternly aloof farmer Innis, protective of the place’s dark history, while the ruggedly debonair Hassell plays the lead with sincere concern, comfortably withstanding a knock or two on his chiselled chin along the way. Tori Butler-Hart eloquently rides the fine line between matronly care and resisting her inner demons, and later we meet the albino-esque Lorna (Emma King), who naturally carries an apt touch of the otherworld.
Fittingly, considering the title, the real star feels like it’s the island setting itself. The windswept woods are portrayed with handsome cinematography and artful overheads, offsetting a hostile but picturesque wilderness against the sanctity of a rustic interior. The rural Victorian period is effectively evoked with earthen shades, nautical colours and crackling fires. And some well-executed jump-cut scenes imply something unsettling just beneath the surface. An atmospheric soundtrack contributes to a large part of the mood, with traditional Celtic folk heavily punctuating the plot, but never intruding. So this largely bloodless ghost story works on chill and charm, not gore, bearing a distant echo of The Wicker Man (1973), and other ‘gentler’ examples of folk horror.
With a satisfying resolution, it’s a fairly simple tale (as the Greek myths informing it tend to be), but balanced plotting and a slow-release flashback structure keep you engaged. Even if the visitors do seem to run aground with surprisingly clean hair for such desperately shipwrecked sailors. A truly homegrown labour of love, this is highly accomplished and passionate filmmaking. It’s refreshing, even heartening, to see a production standing out from the zombie-like crowd following mainstream horror trends, and carving its own spooky hollow where few films currently dare to tread.
★ ★ ★ ★