Like Before the Fire, this Canadian science fiction/horror film comes along at a time when its premise seems to overlap with current events – which gives it resonances director/co-writer Francesco Giannini can’t have foreseen, though also hobbles it slightly as events have played out differently (where are the masks?).
A flu pandemic has struck Canada, though disease symptoms fall somewhere between ringworm and zombie apocalypse, and a family – Val (Carolina Bartczak), Branden (Mark Gibson) and daughter Kelly (Bailey Thain) – have left their home and head to a hotel. Val makes brittle jokes about her clumsiness and Branden simmers with rage at the least hint of criticism, suggesting that this family has had horrific troubles well before the current crisis – and the direction/playing of three-way scenes where Val has to avoid provoking her dangerous husband while simultaneously trying to keep her daughter in the dark about ‘that time Mommy fell down stairs and broke her arm’. As if to suggest that there’s a world-wide epidemic of husbands being abusive assholes, pregnant Naomi (Yumiko Shaku) is in a room on the same hall – having come from Japan for work, and being disinclined to return to her rage-texting husband.
The film opens in the title hall, with Naomi in the grips of the disease and others succumbing to or dead from the plague – then flashes back hours to show the sudden onset of the bug, which may or may not have to do with a sinister scientist (Canadian horror regular Julian Richings) and a Cronenbergian government program. Cronenberg veteran Vlasta Vrana has a cameo late in the day, and Thain is a dead ringer (ahem) for Candy Carveth of The Brood, to which this might be an answer film in that it hints the mutagenic monstrosity springs from male rage rather than female psychosis. Besides its physical effects, this flu causes hallucinations, time outs and weird lapses in cinema syntax that are uniquely disorienting – even the blunt expositionary chunks conveyed by emergency broadcast (and buried after the end credits) feel surreal and odd rather than makeshift and convenient.
The plot spine is Val’s attempt to get her daughter out of danger, which fits it into the ‘tiger mommy’ school of horror – though Bartczak’s fine work doesn’t turn the lead into a superheroine, but conveys the cleft stick she’s in thanks to her terrible home life. Early on, Daddy makes a fuss about not wanting Mommy coming along when he takes Kelly swimming in the hotel pool – a discomforting bit of business that pays off later when we realise exactly why he is intent on increasing his hold over the child he’s been taking on secret fun trips. And the last act of this confined, claustrophobic picture springs an unexpected development as we get off the hall and out of the stairwell.
With low-key, intense performances – a 2020 horror trend, welcome after so much hysteria – and an ominous thrumm of encroaching dread, this expresses very contemporary terrors – but is also rooted in universally upsetting issues. This is Giannini’s first feature, and marks him as a talent to watch. Co-written with Derrick Adams and Adam Kolodny.