In the new horror movie GWEN, an evil entity is laying waste to a 19th century South Wales town where people are dying, crops are rotting, and animals are being slaughtered. What’s causing such turmoil? Is it a plague, a beast, perhaps some sort of demonic force? Gwen, the title character of this unsettling new horror film, is a curious teen girl who will slowly but surely start to investigate all the strange occurrences. The more she discovers, the more terrified she will become. The same goes for the audience.
It’s rare that a film can build a sense of dread from the first seconds to the last without any real respite along the way, but that’s precisely what writer-director William McGregor has done in his auspicious film debut. From the very get-go, he creates an unsettling mood that transports us into a particular world and a hellish one at that. The town where all the chicanery occurs is perennially overcast as if God can only mourn such a place. The rocks jut out of the land, threatening to cut any passerby. The palate of the townsfolk is just as ashen as the sky, and nary a sound is welcoming. What kind of place is this to raise a family?
And yet that’s what single mother Elen (Maxine Peale) is doing, trying to make a go of the family farm after her husband has mysteriously abandoned his brood. Teen Gwen and her younger sister Mari (Jodi Innes) are still not tainted by the cold, cruel world, but the machinations around them, from the landscape to the town elders to their mercurial mother, will challenge every fiber of their being.
Gwen is barely in her teens, and yet her mother expects her to handle more responsibility than any reasonable 13-year-old could manage. She not only must do the majority of the chores, everything from farming to selling their vegetables at the market to watching over her sister, but she must also keep her mother on an even keel. Mom is still reeling from her husband’s absence, and to add insult to injury, she often has fits that mystify her eldest.
Is mom going insane? Is it a disease like epilepsy that no one knew of then? Or is it something far, far worse? Does she have the devil in her? Maybe that would explain her hair-trigger temper, her lack of sympathy towards injured animals, and her tendency to watch her daughter sleep at night from shadows in the corner of her room.
McGregor does sly work, creating in her a monster that may be the more likely culprit in town over any ghost or hobgoblin. And even with all of her duties to fulfill each day, Gwen can’t help but be driven to find out what’s wrong with her mother, as well as why so many tragedies are befalling the town. As the young woman starts to investigate the death of a local family that died overnight in their home, it appears to not be from the cover story of Cholera, but from a force far more sinister. McGregor turns her into a sleuth who puts everything together, even if she may be powerless to stop it. Such revelations are equally devastating and give this horror tale weight that few ever have.
For a first feature, McGregor shows remarkable assuredness at every level. His direction, along with the cinematography by Adam Etherington, the dramatic score by James Edward Barker, and the production design by Laura Ellis Cricks should all figure in awards season in a few months. So should Worthington-Cox and Peake who give incredible performances. Peake goes over-the-top, and we feel her character’s building mania at every turn. In a storied career, this is her best work, and she will hopefully be a contender for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
Worthington-Cox’s performance goes in the exact opposite direction. She must be mostly reactive to everything around her. She keeps us invested in her and all of her pain throughout every reaction to her mother’s chaos, as well as the ills that show up at their doorstep, including hearts nailed to their front door. The actress may have only been born in 2001, but Worthington-Cox acts like a stage veteran with decades of work under her belt.
In many ways, this film isn’t what we mostly think of as horror. It’s more psychological, and in many ways, it’s best described as a terrifying period piece about a disconcerting time in the world’s history. Still, this one feels like a horror film in much the same way that THERE WILL BE BLOOD felt like one in 2007. The characters and events at the center of will chill the bone better than any Jason, Freddy or Pinhead. And poor Gwen, she has to battle all comers bringing their evil.
McGregor sympathizes significantly with her, as well as her family, and that elevates the genre as well. Still, he is brilliant and wringing every last ounce of fright out of every moment. Even when Gwen experiments with makeup, McGregor has her add rouge to her face by drawing blood from her cheek with a sharp instrument. Even beauty in this world bursts forth frighteningly.
This amazing filmmaker knows too that in some of the best horror tales, man equals, if not eclipses, the beast. The title character in Mary Shelley’s horror classic refers to the doctor – Victor Frankenstein – and not the creature he generates out of corpses. The monstrosity of man is evidenced throughout the best literature and films intended to scare the bejesus out of us. It’s there in MOBY DICK, ROSEMARY’S BABY, GET OUT, and here too. Such fears linger because they’re all too recognizable. GWEN may have a sweet-sounding name, but it’s a film that will disturb long after the credits roll. In fact, it’s not only the best horror movie this year, but it’s also one of 2019’s very best films.