Each of Dominic Brunt’s features – Before Dawn, Bait, Attack of the Adult Babies – has premiered at FrightFest, as does his fourth, written and directed in collaboration with Jamie Lundy. Admirably committed to horror, Brunt is equally admirably committed to tackling different kinds of horror with each outing. All his films have a North-of-England feel – this mixes Yorkshire and Welsh locations to create a particularly archetypal wave-lashed coast – and key collaborators (actor-producer Joanne Mitchell) recur … but otherwise, they range from action-packed to contemplative, from knockabout to subtly chilling, from earthy to etherial. This is a restrained tale of the call of the sea, evoking legends of selkies and sirens and mermaids and nymphs (all of whom have featured in horror films in the last few years, suggesting a worldwide trend). There’s been a lot of concentration on folk horror, with its fields and trees and standing stones, but – as evinced by that weird craze for sea shanties on TikTok – there’s a lot of lore about the sea too, and perhaps it’s time for a study of that particular brand of tall tale (we might call them fish stories). On a remote beach, young Evie (Honey Lundy) – who squabbles with her brother Tony (Danny-Lee Mitchell-Brunt) about a kite and pesters her mother (Mitchell) with kid-type questions about giraffes – finds a pendant carved with runes, of which she becomes very possessive (leading to a series of shocking, small-scale acts of violence). Her character changes, but in a way that could be a natural growth of the determined, inquisitive soul she is – though ‘Freaky Evie’ might also be under supernatural influence. She makes a fuss in church, walking out on a sermon delivered by Father Robert (Michael Smiley) to wander through the clifftop graveyard (there’s a significant inscription on one stone) and look out to sea (a silhouette presence is glimpsed).
The trouble caused in the family and community by Evie’s personality change is conveyed impressionistically – in some heated arguments and bad scenes, Thomas Ragsdale’s score takes over and we don’t hear what’s being said. Then the film jumps forward and we find adult Evie (Holli Dempsey) living in a different sort of movie – she’s a brittle alcoholic who hates her dull job, hooks up with randoms on dating apps, and lives an almost unfurnished life. When her brother (Jay Taylor), from whom she has been long separated, gets in touch and tells her their father – whom she thought committed suicide after a traumatic incident on the seashore – is still alive. Evie is drawn back into her fractured family, and struggles to remember exactly what happened to break up the family – and Tony nags her along with soft-spoken menace, eventually luring her back to the shore and her childhood home.
There’s a strand of ghost story that requires a rational explanation to be foregrounded, and here the general assumption of all the characters (including adult Evie) and the film itself seems to be that the girl had extreme personality issues which have carried on into her barely functional later life. Dempsey doesn’t play Evie as the sort of slowly-cracking-up woman who has often been the focus of British psychological horror (from Repulsion to Saint Maud) but as someone who might be in a Shane Meadows or Mike Leigh film – bitterly funny, shambling through disaster. Rather than go completely inside her own head, Evie just assumes everyone else is like her – her key creepy line, which comes late in the day, is that she’s never alone. The last act gets out on the sea, of course, and ties up the plot threads in a satisfying manner – there’s still ambiguity, but we get some concrete genre horror business which pleasingly delivers a consistent irrational explanation for everything – to leave us with a feeling of being genuinely haunted. Brunt has often found collaborators toiling away in unregarded corners of the British film/TV industry – here, there’s outstanding widescreen work from cinematographer Edward Ames, relishing the pictorial opportunities which probably didn’t come his way while he was shooting 458 episodes of Doctors.