In Piper, a car speeds alongside woods in the rain at night. Inside Kerry Weiss (Alma Rix) tries to stay in command of the vehicle, while preventing her manically humming young son Matty (Jékabs Grigalis) from throwing himself onto the road. At the Hamelin hospital, Kerry – and Kerry alone – sees a hooded piper and a swarm of rats, and then Matty hangs himself with electrical wire right before her eyes.
Hamelin is of course both a real town in Germany and a place of myth – and when three weeks later, Liz Haines (Elizabeth Hurley) arrives to replace Kerry as history teacher at the International School, the very first assignment that she gives her class is “to separate fact from fiction” in the legend of the Pied Piper. “Come up with your own theory,” she tells the students, who now include her own teenaged daughter Amy (Mia Jenkins), reluctantly dragged here from her American home.
In a sense, Piper is also coming up with its own theory on the myth, if one that is neither plausible nor even economic. For far from being an aggrieved ratcatcher who lures to their deaths the children of locals who did not pay him for his services, here the piper is a demonic entity (played by Arben Bajraktaraj and a bunch of CGI) who punishes adults for their sins and guilt, first with hallucinatory plagues, then with the suicide of their children – and there are other ghosts, too, in this mirror world where past and present coexist. Liz’s guilt is what drove her to flee America in the first place, and as Amy starts to settle in, and to embark on a relationship with local horse-riding magician Luca (Jack Stewart), something is going very wrong in their new home – the very one that Kerry and her son had previously occupied. History seems doomed to repeat, as Liz starts to see rats, and Amy begins to be infested with insects.
“Think of them as metaphors,” suggests Auntie Aishe (Tara Fitzgerald), the Romani wise woman to whom Luca has brought Amy for advice. “Metaphors don’t bite,” replies Amy. Yet here, as Aishe insists, “Metaphysically they can. Fundamental fears, beliefs, even wishes can manifest themselves in this world from a parallel reality.” In other words Piper is a film where emotions and affects are reified, where the psychological is made real, and where love – whether maternal or romantic – is tested to its limits by a horror that is no less eternal.
Yet the film’s very abstraction – the way it keeps pulling the rug from under anything or anyone who seems real – makes it hard for the viewer to find a purchase. If this character is just a ghost, and that character but a demon of the imagination, then the drama shared between mother and daughter seems oddly weightless, with even its potential consequences perhaps little more than a figure.
Director Anthony Waller (Mute Witness, 1995; An American Werewolf in Paris, 1997) certainly knows how to shoot stylised twilight zones (often washed with rain), or to confuse the corridors of a house or hospital above with the tunnels of catacombs below – but his screenplay, co-written with Duncan Kennedy (Deep Blue Sea, 1999), consists mostly in gruelling repetitions or raw exposition, leaving the cast with too little bone to flesh out convincingly.
It does not help that the accents are all over the place, with American Liz and Kerry’s German husband Peter (Robert Daws) sounding decidedly English, and the Romani traveller Luca speaking with a broad Scots brogue. With even the Piper himself reduced to a boogeyman archetype, in the end some will wonder why this was set in Hamelin at all (in fact most of it was shot in Riga, Latvia).
Still, a succession of mid-credits codas plays further upon the uncanny intersection of fantasy and reality that the film has constantly been traveling, leaving the viewer utterly disoriented as to what actually happened beyond all the overt artifice.