Genres that set out to elicit an obvious response – laughter for comedy, arousal for porn, tears for soap opera, fright for horror – can get away with a lot of shortcomings. Porn fans don’t really care if a boom mike strays into shot or actors forget their onscreen partner’s character name and use the real one instead. People who find Kevin James amusing will put up with all manner of clunky exposition, embarrassed supporting performances, and a lack of respect for the well-documented procedures of actual shopping mall security operatives. And horror films like Isabelle can feature plots that are at once nonsensical and overfamiliar, earnestly uncommitted performances, rote scenes in which people look up backstory on the internet or suddenly reminisce about traumatic formative experiences, and very dubious business in which the long discredited Satanic ritual child abuse kerfuffle is taken seriously and a woman with a serious real-world ailment (spina bifida) is made to seem creepy just for cheap chills … just so long as there are a suitable number of scary moments.
Perhaps surprisingly, director Robert Heydon – working from a script by Donald Martin (Murder She Baked: A Chocolate Chip Cookie Mystery, Dim Sum Funeral, The Hunt for the BTK Killer, and a ton of those Lifetime Christmas movies) – makes some of the hokiest look-out-she’s-behind-you scares work, and actress Zoe Belkin – she played the PJ Soles role in the Carrie remake – is genuinely unsettling as an old-school spook with a twisted shoulder, smouldering fire eyes and the hint of a malicious smile. In Saratoga Springs – played by Canada, with a few discreet Stars and Stripes to explain why there’s a gun in the house of a known suicide risk who’s started ranting about neighbours plotting against her – a nice young couple move into a big old house. Matt Kane (Adam Brody) has a new job with a heavy workload when it’s convenient for the plot, and Larissa (Amanda Crew) is heavily pregnant. Next door is weird old Ann Pelway (Sheila McCarthy), whose wheelchairbound daughter Isabelle keeps giving Larissa the evil eye from an upstairs window.
In another dubious taste development, the heroine has a miscarriage and the film spends a reel or two on her subsequent depression – and the growing feeling that she’s being haunted. A spiritually-inclined sister (Krista Bridges), a priest (Dayo Ade), a State Trooper father-in-law (Booth Savage) and a healer (Michael Salazar) are all consulted but just provide exposition. You’d think Matt’s law enforcement Dad would mention that the couple are moving in next door to the site of what must have been a pretty big deal criminal investigation … but husband and wife both have separately to look Isabelle’s woes up online.
Is Isabelle alive or dead? Does she want to possess or replace Larissa? Is the baby’s ghost mixed up in all this? What’s with the red eyes? None of these questions need trouble viewers – because the film just keeps springing tired old bathroom mirror gags, bedroom invasions, and back-of-the-frame looming to deliver decent jump scares and slow-freeze chills. Crew works hard in the lead, Brody gets a dull straight role (he’s much more interesting in Ready or Not) and Bridges – a Canadian actress with an eclectic CV (Land of the Death and Left Behind) – is reasonably credible as the sister of a leading lady who’s nearly twenty years younger than she is. It’d be interesting to see what Heydon could do with a halfway decent horror script.