The directorial debut from the writer of The Orphanage, Sergio G Sánchez, plays out like a blend of Agatha Christie mystery and twisted fairy-tale that pounds with dread and imbues a genuine concern for its young protagonists thanks to the talented young cast. Like a throwback to early Guillermo del Toro its melancholic atmosphere is achingly tender but certain aspects of the human drama are difficult to pull off due to the intentional vagueness of the narrative.
A confident George MacKay leads a damaged brood of British children played by Mia Goth, Matthew Stagg and Charlie Heaton (Jonathan from Stranger Things) who all get their moments to shine individually. The family have emigrated from England to a giant, isolated manor house in the US, masking a terrible secret and hiding away from an abusive father. As a group collective they are an endearing bunch who charm a local librarian (Anya Taylor-Joy) who becomes a keen love interest for McKay’s broken soul.
Creeping moments of terrifying dread are interspersed with delightful picnics on the beach and getting to know the kids. Goth truly inhabits her role as a meek and kind girl who dotes on her younger brother. Stagg is often part of the scariest moments of the film and Sánchez knows that when terror attacks an innocent, young child all protection senses instantly kick in setting you on edge. Heaton, prowling around with a rifle and incensed with jealousy and curiosity is an intriguing and potent presence. Together their dynamic switches between sweetly caring, downright hostile and adorable, much like many families, but there’s something troubling brewing and it’s up to the audience to work out exactly what that is.
The decaying house provides ample space for Sánchez to show off his skills. He knows how to craft a good scare and despite the film faltering somewhat in its final throes it is a promising debut. It will be exciting to see what he comes up with next and if he can nail a cast this good again future endeavours are sure to be a hit.