Sunday, October 12, 2014

Zwart water (2010)

aka Two Eyes Staring

After the death of her grandmother, whom she never met, her parents Christine (Hadewych Minis) and Paul (Barry Atsma) move with their daughter Lisa (Isabelle Stokkel) from Holland to the mansion Christine inherited in neighbouring Belgium.

Christine herself isn’t completely happy with the move, not just because she had been estranged from her mother since she was a child but on account of some terrible secret in her past concerning a twin sister she never even mentioned to Paul. On the other hand, the move enables her to finally make the career step she always wanted to take (though it means pretending she doesn’t have a daughter). Nott having to pay rent anymore sure is quite attractive too, so facing old wounds perhaps just might be worth it.

For Lisa, through whose eyes we see most of what occurs during the film, the move is the worst possible thing that could have happened. Not only is she losing the only friend she had and bounces off painfully off the expected cruelty of her new peers, but she also becomes convinced there’s something/someone living in the house with them: a little, talking dead girl inhabiting the cellar that just might have something to do with her mother’s sister. A talking dead girl that becomes rather interested in Lisa.

Historically the Netherlands (at least after World War II, I don’t know about the silent era) have had an even less exciting output when it comes to horror movies than my native Germany, resulting in such a tiny number of horror films, you could probably count them on your fingers. So it is already a praiseworthy achievement of Zwart water’s director Elbert van Strien to actually have made one at all. Seen from this angle it’s just a bonus achievement van Strien managed to make a film this accomplished on many levels.

Not surprisingly in this context, there’s a degree of derivativeness in the film’s approach to horror, following in the footsteps of Spanish ghostly horror movies made after 2000, with The Orphanage and del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone obvious stepping stones in tone and perspective. It’s also no surprise that the film at hand isn’t quite as good at what it does as these two films are, lacking a certain freshness, or the feeling it is putting the elements of the Spanish (language) films in a truly different perspective.

However, a certain lack in originality does not necessarily kill a horror movie. At the very least, Zwart water is derivative of films whose techniques seem very much worth copying and learning from, slow burn horror films that draw large parts of their effect from a basis in human psychology, their ghosts not so much beside the point as tools to tell stories about human beings while still being atmospheric and – sometimes – frightening.

The frightening part is Zwart water’s other problem, in so far that none of the directly scary scenes are all that effective. Fortunately, the film doesn’t really put a lot of emphasis on them, with van Strien preferring to effectively create a dark and threatening mood that sometimes – particular in light of the plot twists and ambiguities of the film – even reaches the level of creeping dread.

The script is a rather fine one, treating the complexities of a seemingly happy family under pressure of the past with subtlety and the needed ambiguity and generally not falling into the trap of making anyone the bad guy of the piece. Consequently, there’s the feeling of witnessing a terrible tragedy taking its course, the sort of thing that nobody involved seems to “deserve” and that still happens to them. In this regard I do particularly like how matter of factly and without judgement the film treats certain elements of Christine’s past once we learn about them, without raising the pointy finger of a moral message too highly nor opting for sleazy wallowing. Sometimes guilt, it turns out, is a rather difficult to pin down thing, even in cases where the responsibilities are quite clear.

In this sense, Zwart water has learned the right lessons from the 2000+ wave of Spanish horror, things these films themselves of course learned from Japanese films, ending up as maybe not a perfect horror film yet as one very much worth watching and thinking about.

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