Cinema/TV, Film Notes

FrightFest review – Estranged



This British gothic mystery pleasantly evokes the run of woman-in-peril-in-an-old-house psycho-thrillers with twist-ridden plots that Hammer Films put out in the 1960s alongside their classic monster movies (Paranoiac, Nightmare, Fanatic).  Like those films, this has a contemporary setting but takes place in a decaying corner of England where modern mores have never been accepted and conveniences like telephone reception are unknown.  Amy Manson, who has done significant television work (Desperate Romantics, Being Human), takes full advantage of a juicy lead role as a tough ingenue surrounded by scheming, probably malicious family members and hangers-on, undergoing various abuses and perils as she tries to solve a knot of mysteries.


In the opening sequence, free-spirited January Dunfield (Manson) is thrown off a bike driven at speed by her boyfriend Callum (Simon Quartermain) in South America and takes a severe blow to the head.  Suffering from total amnesia, January is forced to return to the isolated house – at once imposing and dilapidated – where she grew up, and is taken in by her timid and nervous mother Marilyn (Eileen Nicholas) and remote, domineering father Albert (James Cosmo).  Also on hand are artistically-inclined shut-in sister Kathrine (Nora-Jane Noone) and arrogant, lecherous brother Laurence (James Lance).  Opinions differ as to whether Laurence is a working veterinarian or merely pretending in order to have access to tranquiliser darts.  The family blame Callum for January’s state of mind, but when he disappears she doesn’t believe their story that he left … and she starts to wonder if she is even who they say she is, and what exactly it was that prompted her to run off and have nothing to do with them in the first place.  Though she is encouraged to recover from her physical injuries and walk again, she finds herself confined to the decaying estate – which has only a single, cowed butler (Craig Conway) to tend it – and the welcoming relatives mostly start to turn on her, each with their own sinister, unpleasant agenda.


Quite harrowing in the later stages – especially when Albert changes tack with his prisoner and takes extreme measures – this builds atmosphere and tension slowly.  Details of the art direction – like the piles of chopped logs everywhere – and performance hint at the fraying edges of the world of privilege the overgrown estate and old dark house represent.  Director Adam Levins and writers William Borthwick (who also produced) and Simon Fantauzzo don’t give everything away at once, and hold back on some of the horrors to keep the heroine in the dark as long as possible.  Cinematographer Gary Shaw (Moon, Ill Manors) gives it all an ominous, yet intriguing look.


The temptation in high melodrama is to overact, but Levins keeps his excellent cast on a tight rein – in a role where most actors would chew scenery, Cosmo plays soft and intense and is all the more terrifying for it, while Nicholas lends a note of tragic sympathy and Noone and Lance strike comedy notes without being any the less menacing (‘since you don’t feel we’re related,’ Laurence addresses the amnesiac January, ‘how about a blow job?’).  Manson, familiar from UK TV genre stuff (Being Human, Torchwood, Atlantis, Outcasts), holds the attention in a leading lady showcase.





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