The first feature by Osgood Perkins (son of Anthony Perkins) is a fairly conventional horror yarn bent and contorted until it starts to feel like something fresh. It’s a lesson in narrative construction that proves even old tales can feel new with the right coat of varnish.
The film plays out in such a unique and twisted way that plot descriptions are difficult, but I’ll do my best to discuss it without giving the game away. We’re introduced to three different girls in three unfortunate circumstances. First, Lucy Boynton plays a private school goth who was recently knocked up by her boyfriend and stays in her dorm on the first night of winter break to chat with him about what they’ll do. Kiernan Shipka plays an awkward young freshman at the same school who’s also trapped there over winter break when her parents don’t bother to pick her up, and who also starts receiving strange phone calls. Then there’s Emma Roberts as a young woman who escaped from a mental institution and is offered a ride by an older couple whose daughter died many moons ago.
Obviously, the three threads are closely connected, but Perkins doesn’t get to the hows and whys until over halfway through the movie. He toys with chronology and structure, replaying the same scenes from different perspectives at different times to slowly reveal all his secrets. It’s a bit of a supernatural tale (or maybe not), but even that isn’t clear for most of the running time because of how the director manipulates the narrative to hide his plan.
That likely sounds a bit frustrating, and at first it is. However, the filmmaker maintains such a creepily effective mood through brilliantly atmospheric sound design, enigmatic dialogue, wonderfully morose performances, and pregnant pauses that the movie still slithers under the skin in a sophisticated manner.
Of course, eventually things become overtly horrific and the writer/director delivers the gooey goods with flair. However, their impact is heightened through the mysterious way he arrives at his visceral climaxes, cleverly delivering a manipulative horror movie in such a delightfully knotted way that viewers will be too invested by the time the usual material arrives to consider it clichéd. He also provides empathy for his monster in a manner that few horror flicks manage, which provides another layer of resonance.
The only trouble is that so much of the effectiveness of the movie derives from its unconventional telling that it’s hard to imagine the movie with resonate nearly as well on second viewing. At least the first viewing works this damn well. Hopefully, the next time Perkins gets to step behind the camera he’ll have a story more worthy of all his clever and creepy tricks.