There’s nothing like stating your influences right out of the gate: writer-director Sebastian Gutierrez blatantly frames Elizabeth Harvest as a modernised take on the tale of Bluebeard, with references to the work of Alfred Hitchcock (ooh, Rebecca) and Brian DePalma (yay, splitscreen!).
Narrator Elizabeth (Abbey Lee), a fragile young bride, is carried over the threshold of an isolated moderne mansion by her wealthy scientist new husband Henry Kollenberg (Ciaran Hinds), who lectures her about the Rape of the Sabine Women and Erik Satie’s religious beliefs, and cuts off her underwear on their rapturous wedding night. At hand are sinister attendants Claire (Carla Cugino), a sexier Mrs Danvers, and Oliver (Matthew Beard), a blind flower arranger. Henry shows Elizabeth around the castle, which has all the wardrobes, rooms, art and wine cellars a girl could dream of … but there’s one frosted-glass-doored chamber in the cellar Henry asks her not to go into, though the touch of her thumb will get her access and he happens to be going away for a sudden work trip. It might just be that the bride suffers from a form of partial amnesia which has blanked the old, old story out of her mind, but of course she ventures into the mad science version of Bluebeard’s stash of dead wives … and Henry comes after her with a machete.
At this point, it seems that the film might have run out of steam – and supermodel Lee (whose CV includes stuff like The Neon Demon and Mad Max Fury Road) has been giving such a listless performance is so thin a protagonist role that we’d be grateful to see her hacked up and buried in the garden. But Gutierrez has been playing a long game, and – six weeks later – the story starts over, with an identical Elizabeth going through much the same fairytale nightmare but with different angles, more ominous signposting, a science fiction angle, and a steep learning curve that lets Lee show off more backbone and exhibit a wider acting range than expected. The cycle continues, with a ‘five years earlier’ stretch that shows why Gugino (bidding to be a genre icon in a varied range of macabre projects) took what seems at first to be a stooge part. Even the diffident Oliver gets a turn at playing lead, when Henry can’t take part in one run-through.
It’s great-looking, and confidently melodramatic in pitch – with the always value-for-money Hinds doing a great deal with the sleekly loathsome fatal man, who has a splendidly monstrous late-in-the-film rant that expresses the horribly perverse thrill he has discovered while toiling away Frankenstein fashion on a familiar science project. The film requires a lot of attention, and various iterations of Elizabeth are always trying to gum tab A of exposition to tab B of understanding to make a model of the house – which perhaps makes it more of an exercise is playing with the primal story than exploring its implications … though it’s also an entry in a current cycle of perhaps-topical films in which narcissist bullying blowhards are given complete control of others (usually women) and have to be coped with, got around, fought off, or got rid of for civilisation to resume.