You ever watch one of those movies that just feels like it never gets going? That by the time you’re at the end, it still feels like that? It’s the cumulative effect of the wrong people doing the wrong things at the same time. By that, I’m not referring to the actors, who are the least at fault in most productions. The ones to blame are those on the other side of the camera. In this case, I’m talking about the mild supernatural drama Lavender, starring Abbie Cornish, Dermot Mulroney, and Justin Long.
Over the year since I started up my blog, I’ve watched a number of horror movies, ranging from very good (The Witch), to very bad (The Hallow) – Lavender is squarely in the middle – mediocre, and utterly forgettable. Horror is a genre in which you need to commit. In rare occasions, going all in with your concept works well, but there needs to be to talent in the production somewhere, along with a budget that can come close to conceptualizing the concept, but mostly the concepts are not worthy of development. They’re either too ambitious for the budget (Beyond The Gates), or the concept is a retread of a better movie (Harbinger Down) – regardless of the reason, the result is a mixed bag, and generally unsatisfying. But there are plenty of other movies that do work, and these are movies by directors who truly understand both filmmaking, and the horror genre. I won’t run through the names that have been a staple of some of my other reviews, but there’s a clear demarcation line between those who can, and those who can’t, produce effective and worthwhile movies within the horror genre.
Having said that, I consider the horror genre pretty broad. Horror doesn’t necessarily need to sling gore and violence across the screen for it to be included – it doesn’t even have to terrify. It needs to have a “creep” factor, though. An unsettling feeling that reaches out through the scenes to lodge in the mind of the viewer. Other people will have narrower definitions of “horror”, and that’s fine too. Lavender falls into the “supernatural drama” part of the horror spectrum, along with such movies as The House On Pine Street, The Devil’s Backbone, We Are Still Here, and Crimson Peak: something terrible has happened in the past – usually a crime that has gone unsolved or requires retribution, and it reaches out to those in the present to get justice. These are tropes of the cinematic ghost story, and they generally involve a building that the spirits are attached to. In Lavender, the historic events are the murders of three fourths of a family, with the oldest daughter Jane surviving, but found by the cops holding an open razor. Is she responsible?
In the present, Jane (Cornish) has grown up to be a wife, mother, and has her own gallery where she displays the photos she takes of rural homes, like the place in which she grew up. We learn early on that she has no memory of that horrible event, nor, apparently of her life prior to it. When she gets into a car accident, and old trauma is found on an x-ray, she discovers that one of the homes she has photographed is her family home, and goes to visit it for therapeutic reasons, and contacts her uncle (Mulroney), who lives on a neighbouring property. It’s a little over halfway through the movie where the supernatural-need-for-justice plot finally kicks in. And this is a problem. The entire first half of the movie is setup only. From a structural perspective, it’s a pretty extraordinary lapse of reason on the part of writers Ed Gass-Donnelly (who also directed) and Colin Frizzell, made worse because the first half of the movie is utterly inert. Things happen, but they do so with no sense of rising and falling conflict. Everything is written, photographed, directed in a flat manner that strips out any sense of importance to certain scenes. Jane and husband Alan have problems, but they don’t ever feel that bad. Jane’s memory lapses? Nothing that bad ever comes of them. There are dramatic stakes that can be raised throughout the first half of this movie, but Gass-Donnelly and Frizzell never at any point attempt to grab them. When the story finally moves to the farmhouse in which Jane grew up, and the spirits make contact, even they don’t seem committed. It takes on the annoyingly familiar trope where the ghosts who want justice simply drop hints as to what they want, never explicitly come out and declare their intention. When a movie is done well, it’s an element I can push off to the side, but when a movie is weak, and the plot revolves around the trope, it completely negates the story to me.
Between the slamming doors that can’t be re-opened, the small hints and cues initiated by the spirits, and the coquettish riddles the spirits play, there’s never a sense that they truly want the crime to be solved. If the ghosts don’t seem fully invested in the plot, why should you, the viewer? The answer is not provided by the lackluster script or direction. And besides, it doesn’t matter – it won’t take an astute movie watcher to guess the culprit early on in the movie, and when that reveal comes it only raises a bigger question that the movie’s plot has no answer for: why did Jane survive? Since the movie tells you VERY early that she went to foster parents after her family was killed, she’s clearly not the actual killer, but there was also no reason for the killer to assume that Jane had become so traumatized she’d forget everything from that moment going forward. It’s a spectacularly lazy whodunnit, grossly uninvolving on the part of the viewer, and despite a mildly Shyamalanic twist in Act 3, the ending feels unsatisfying, like the made-for-TV movies that can be seen on the Lifetime channel.
While there’s nothing about Lavender that’s truly awful or worthy of contempt or derision, the movie is guilty of failing to engage the mind, of not being able to take a familiar concept and make it better (or at least different) to any others it resembles. It just feels like nobody involved on the production side really cared about much of anything. It’s all very rote and flat and bland, and in the end gives no real reason why it was made in the first place. Watch We Are Still Here instead.
© Andrew Hope 2017