Writer-director Sergio G. Sanchez is best known for his scripts for J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible) – his first theatrical feature is, unusually for a screenwriter, much better directed than it is written. Though it works well on a scene by scene basis, with a palpable thrumm of tension and nicely off-kilter performances, the story fits together only awkwardly, with a great dollop of plot hauled out of its place as if the reels were shown out of order, and quite a bit of fuss made about the build-up to several revelations which are treated as if they were jaw-dropping but are so heavily foreshadowed that they fizzle rather than explode.
Shot in Spain, this is set in somewhere coastal and American in a past which turns out to be 1969 – keyed to moon landing footage, a Nixon photo and a Beach Boys .45 – but seems in the first act to be a much earlier decade. Rose Fairburn (Nicola Harrison) brings her four children – Jack (George MacKay), Billy (Charlie Heaton), Jane (Mia Goth) and Sam (Matthew Stagg) – to the isolated old house where she grew up, and insists they must now go by her maiden name of Marrowbone and rely on each other. The shadow over the family is that the kids’ father (Tom Fisher) is a serial killer who has escaped from prison – at first, they’re just worried about being tainted by his reputation, but a rifle-toting figure glimpsed in the woods suggests they should be more concerned about him tracking them down with murder in mind. There’s a frame with a bumfluffed, slightly older Jack remembering this special summer as he flips the pages of a diary sketchbook – focusing on the children’s friendship with local librarian Allie (Anya Taylor-Joy).
It says something about the effect the film is going for that a character played by Anya Taylor-Joy who seems to speak through a skull-faced tree is the normal one in the bunch, and there’s a nice, distracting oddness to the performances of the siblings, with Heaton simmering angrily, Goth floating airily (no actress is better-named) and MacKay plainly keeping more in his head than he can contain (he has a forehead wound to suggest this). Mother gets sick and dies, but insists – in a parallel with Our Mother’s House and several other kids-fend-for-themselves stories – the children stay on in the house, which gives Jack the burden of pretending she’s still alive when a creepy lawyer (Kyle Soller) who is jealous of the lad’s bond with Allie and ambitious to quit town for a city job shows up to be a plot nag. After the missing time in the story, the house is apparently haunted … though there are also suspicious bloodstains which need to be painted over, and scratching behind the walls which probably isn’t an animal, hinting that we’re venturing into the Hider in the House territory (with even a touch of The Beast in the Cellar) and various plot elements bubble on until an untidy tumble of revelations sorts it all out and sets up an oddly eerie, satisfying ending that almost counts as an idyll.
It’s solemn and sometimes silly, but the creep-out stuff works … a press photo of the killer father draped in a sheet on the steps of a court sets up Sam’s fear of him as a ghost, which pays off in a terrific image involving a sheet and a mirror and a figure which is much bigger than it should be. The plot is as rickety as the house, but the suspense-scare stuff – and a few isolated character scenes, like the lawyer’s sudden horrible realisation that his big job offer is a cruel trap – are effective and engaging.