Tuppence Middleton, Hannah Gross and David Cronenberg lead the cast of impressive horror Disappearance At Clifton Hill – here’s our review.
One guaranteed shortcut to creepiness is to empty out a place designed to be bustling with people. Imagine finding yourself alone in a deserted Disneyland, or shut in a shopping mall after closing time. Brrrr, right?
Director Albert Shin makes solid use of that uneasy feeling in Disappearance At Clifton Hill, setting his mystery thriller on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. The whole place is set up for tourism, neon signs jostling for position along the streets and offering visitors all kinds of thrills, but when Abby (Tuppence Middleton) returns to her hometown to execute her mother’s will, it’s the off-season. The bars are quiet, the attractions feel a bit more desperate for attention than usual, and even the falls have been turned down. Everything’s just a little bit off-kilter.
That feeling doesn’t let up as the story unfolds either. Turns out Abby’s mum was in the middle of selling her motel to a major local property developer who’s got his eye on turning it into a dayglo paintball arena. Abby’s sister Laure (Hannah Gross) just wants to sign the papers and get it over with, but Abby takes longer to let go. And then she finds an old photo that triggers a half-remembered mystery from her childhood – one that will take her through her childhood haunts, to a magic show, to a pool below the falls, and even to a flying saucer-themed diner before she gets anywhere near discovering the truth.
The setting is the star here, as writers Shin and James Schultz weave the real culture and landmarks of the town into their script to great effect. Some of the characters might be outlandish – horror maestro David Cronenberg shows up as a podcasting scuba diver, and a pair of sleight-of-hand magicians with a pet tiger are also pivotal – but somehow, in this border town, anything seems possible. It’s a cliché to say that nothing is ever as it seems, but the slippery, ever-shifting nature of memory is the main theme here, and a town built on trying to offer more thrills than a true wonder of the natural world is the perfect place for it.
The movie’s biggest mystery, though, turns out to be Abby herself. From the moment she’s introduced, it’s obvious there’s more going on in her head than she lets on, and as she’s our way into the story, her status as a notentirely-reliable narrator pushes everything even further off balance. Middleton is great here, even with an unfamiliar Canadian accent; you’ll root for Abby even when you know you shouldn’t, even when you know that, in another story, she’d probably be the villain. She’s got just enough charisma to be dangerous, a compelling and likeable heroine who you wouldn’t want to be friends with.
The ending may be a little too oblique to be satisfying, with an extra twist in the narrative that threatens to topple the whole thing, but by that time you’re either with it or you’re not. This is filmmaking as funhouse: you know you’re being tricked, but you’ll have more fun if you go along with it anyway.
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