When you live in a region where all the most prominent exports are ocean-related — and that includes movies — it's a thrilling feeling to have it represented in a new light. For Nova Scotians, this happened last year with the backroad charms of Weirdos and the grimy formalist empathy of Werewolf. This year, Black Cop is shaking up the idea of Canadian exceptionalism and proving that we're not some pastoral peninsula removed from the worries of the world. So, in case you were wondering, Seth A. Smith's new atmospheric Atlantic Canada horror flick, The Crescent, is keeping some very good company.
Disconsolate and detached after her husband's funeral, Beth (Danika Vandersteen) takes her son, Lowen (Woodrow Graves), to a remote family cottage on the south shore of Nova Scotia. "The beach?" I hear you say, "You promised something we hadn't seen before!" I assure you, you haven't. This isn't the welcoming and familiar shoreline of our typical tourism-video-adjacent regional cinema. A desaturated palette renders the sky, sand, and sea in varying shades of the same grey-blue, their bleakness enhanced by a stark contrast with the vibrancy of the paints we often see Beth using. Save for a particularly gorgeous drone shot, the framing and editing of outdoor scenes keep the geography disoriented and isolating. It's not perfectly apt to call The Crescent a "ghost story", since twists and turns wisely never quite make it clear what might be happening, but it's definitely the perfect location for one. The interiors are just as stunning: geometric and sterile, and with, seriously, the best windows.
Vandersteen brings a kind of panicked exhaustion to her performance as Beth; it's a common trope for mothers in horror films, done as well here as anywhere else. For someone in her first-ever credited film role, she wouldn't be out of place in a big budget Hollywood thriller. The real spectacle is young Woodrow, whose talkative and curious energy brings life to most scenes. He spends at least a third of the runtime completely alone on screen, which can be a feat for even seasoned actors, let alone a toddler. He's the son of director Smith and producer Nancy Urich, to which Smith attributes the resulting naturalism of Lowen's scenes. In fact, working with screenwriter Darcy Spidle, the script evolved around common phrases that the miniature leading-man-to-be was already comfortable saying — an impressive achievement, considering how cohesive the final draft feels.
Bursting onto the screen with a bold title card, the film gets dreamier as it goes along. Consistently interesting artistic choices control the ambience, whether ratcheting up the tension with discordant score and piercing sound design or providing a brief but eerie respite via Beth's impressionistic paint splattering. Something psychological is certainly at play with the shifting aspect ratios and degrading film grain, but Smith is careful not to show his hand too early. As the film peaks there's even some B-movie slasher inspiration thrown in for good measure, complete with skin-crawling practical effects. The final product is a great mix of minimalism and genre influences that will please the diehards while still leaving enough to admire for those too spooked to sit still (read: me, certified wimp and The Crescent proponent).
Part of our AIFF 2017 Review Roundup.