There are a lot of similarities to be made between Estranged and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit. Both feature visits to unknown (or forgotten, in the case of Estranged) relatives and both trips reveal a host of dark family truths. I wasn’t convinced by The Visit, but, with Estranged, Adam Levins (director) does a far better job with a similar premise.
The movie opens with January (Amy Manson) and her boyfriend, Callum (Simon Quarterman), tearing down exotic roads on a moped. But, an ominous shot of a bullet-riddled sign suggests things aren’t quite as idyllic as they seem, and the couple are soon sent flying in a bone-crunching collision. January is left wheelchair-bound and suffering from amnesia. Callum has no choice but to travel back to the UK with her to stay at her grand family home . . . that she ran away from six years ago. The only problem is she can’t remember why. All they know is that it was something so upsetting that she could never bring herself to tell her boyfriend. And so they’re left to re-meet her family.
At first glance, everything seems normal; a woodcutting father, a baking mother and two adult siblings, but a series of off-putting bird’s-eye view shots and equally creepy slow track-ins suggest that all is not quite right. Of course.
While it may lack the visual finesse of Shyamalam’s picture, Levins and his cinematographer, Gary Shaw, demonstrate their own brand of visual panache. They craft a number of really striking shots – the poster image of the eye under the door, being a prime example – and make full use of their location. A spinning camera emphasises the spiralled staircases to dizzying effect and a wheelchair-led dolly shot makes for one of the movie’s most striking sequences.
January’s recovery is also inventively realised. As she begins to walk again, we view her attempts not from her point of view, but stranded high above, looking down a great staircase at her shuffling below. It’s a really interesting directorial choice that heightens the growing unease.
Admittedly, it’s the subtle moments of foreboding that are most effective, but Levins isn’t afraid to dabble with a far blunter delivery. Most of these moments are saved for the final act and centre around the family’s incestuous tendencies. It’s pretty grim stuff, but I’d be wrong to say it didn’t affect me. There’s also a gloriously wince-inducing eye-related injury, that’s really well set-up earlier on in the film.
Like The Visit, there’s the overriding feeling that January and her boyfriend should just get the hell out of there. I mean don’t we all know that a nervy butler (the effective Craig Conway) is always a bad sign? That being said, the wheelchair addition does alleviate the issue somewhat, as well as adding another layer of tension. More problematic is January’s reaction, or lack thereof, to her boyfriend’s ‘disappearance’ towards the end of the first act. It seems to merit something greater than the ‘oh well’ we’re given.
The film also suffers from a slightly fluffed staggered set of reveals. Conceptually, they’re really rather successful, but in execution they come across as somewhat muddled. I got to the point that I was unsure about what I was supposed to know and what had yet to be unveiled, but in a confusing way rather than a mysterious one.
Ultimately, I think it’s the avoidance of any supernatural element that pushes Estranged a peg or two above The Visit. By grounding the mystery in the real world, Levins and his writers, William Borthwick and Simon Fantauzzo, service their strong concept well. Add in the creepy camerawork and we’re left with an effective little chiller, with a hint of grisly class satire thrown in for good measure.
Estranged is out now on DVD/VOD via FrightFest Presents.
Screener and images provided by Fetch Publicity. Thank you!