You’ve got to wonder how certain pitch meetings ever closed the deal. Imagine sitting down with this Irish fellow, a hot young prospect in an industry starting to stretch its global legs and move past the endless green hills & spirited lasses & the troubles & gnarled-wise-drunken old men & pubs of romanticized Eire. He says he’s got this crackin’ idea for horror (horror? in Irish film? feck yeah!), feeding on the European terrors of gen mod. “Great,” says the Film Board, “jes great. So what’s the pitch?”
Cows. Yeah, no, I know what you’re thinking, but hear me out. End of meeting. Except… Billy O’Brien gets funded, gets John Lynch (Cal? He got fucking Cal?), that cute smart actress from Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto (Ruth Negga), and this small cast can actually act. Film’s called Isolation, and for its first 75-80 minutes, it’s shot with glorious contrasts, all shadows and grime and ooze and damp and gore around this isolated, very small dairy farm where the farmer (aforementioned Lynch, named here Dan, I know, I know, Farmer Dan) has rented out a couple cows to this creepy Eastern European scientist. The film looks lovely, is very well-acted, and is remarkably creepy — cashing in influences from Ridley Scott and David Cronenberg with some real relish. Sure, the last 10-15 minutes finally see the film’s suspense sag into a flabbier, more formulaic chase around with a goofy monster (which resembles a very angry, ill-groomed trout). But up until that moment you realize, now and again, as you bite nails or grit your teeth, I’m being scared here by some notion of a fucking mutant calf-worm thing. And the fundamental ridiculousness doesn’t at all unseat the horror, may in fact amp it up.
Stephen King, at his best, knows this. Things which are plain silly can–viewed at the right angle, with the right attitude, with a clear sense of how to peel back the comforting skin of the everyday and expose an uncanny horror underlying every mundane detail–be terrifying. Early on in Isolation, we watch farmer Dan try to help a cow through a very, very trying birth–the calf stuck, a strange pulley contraption hooked up to the hooves protruding from the mother’s nether regions, we see the calf finally extricated but now not breathing swung about by the hooves until it gasps… and as grotesque, weird, scary as this scene plays out, nothing in it is really that particularly distant from certain realities of animal husbandry. Even without fears of gm tech run amok, I was already knuckled under the real grotesquerie of the farm.
I dug it. Meanwhile, the adaptation of Scott Simon’s The Ruins, a novel I really enjoyed, is utterly faithful and, I thought, terribly flat. Its unlikely antagonist (minor spoiler) is an ancient sentient plant. The novel grimly takes its premise as a vehicle for grim focus on the (bad upon bad upon bad) decisions made by the protagonists trapped on the pyramid, served up for the mean plant, and with loving detail does exactly to the body (and threats of intrusion and the mess of it all) what Isolation does so well… but the movie is forced to rush–it takes us 15 minutes to get on the pyramid, then we have to rush to get to the threat, and then we kind of rush over (rather than agonize through) each bad decision, and… well, the film too quickly buckles from the burden of the inherently ridiculous premise.
What allows horror to escape its own ludicrous grounds is when that central premise (the cow, the plant, the alien, the Thing) creeps in from the sideview and is first felt at the edge of the protagonists’ consciousness. These heroes begin to feel uncomfortable in their own skins (quite literally, often), and every detail of their life is infused with a sense of dread. Once that dread is accomplished… hell, angry rabbits could scare me. The thing isn’t the thing, if you know what I mean: the monster is a means to an end.
Check out those cows.