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A self-consciously artsy horror film set in liminal places like the seashore and the border between wakefulness and sleep, Seth A. Smith’s The Crescent opens with an extended look at a different interplay of swirling liquids: Putting all the film’s credits up front, Smith intercuts them with ravishing footage of marbled paper being made, paint dropped on prepared water and swirled just so. You might, if you’d been thrown into the movie-movie-movie jumble of a festival, wish you could watch just this for an hour and a half. But a paler phantasmagoria awaits, one that will please some viewers on the edges of the indie-creepsville scene but will be off-putting to most mainstream audiences.
The picture’s biggest commercial hurdle is its very slow, deliberately unpolished first act, which looks and feels like it was mostly made up as the camera rolled. A very young mother named Beth (first-timer Danika Vandersteen) and her toddler Lowen (Woodrow Graves, the son of Smith and his producer Nancy Urich) are mourning the loss of Lowen’s father. Sitting numbly outside the funeral with her mother, Beth says, “Honestly, Mom, I don’t feel anything,” even when the older woman suggests she isn’t equipped to care for the boy. She packs Lowen up in a car and heads to Mom’s empty beach house, set in a sparsely populated part of an unnamed coast.
There, Beth putters with some art projects like the aforementioned paper marbling. But whispered intimations of menace arrive early, making the tool used for that marbling — a long stick with a row of nails sticking out of it — look like an impalement waiting to happen.
As Beth grows less and less in touch with the world — apparently sleepwalking, less wary than she should be of noises outside the house — we fear for Lowen, and the film makes a point of framing him in ways that nurture our fear. (Perhaps Smith is trying to immunize himself against paternal overprotectiveness with this vicarious neglect.) The days pass slowly, for Beth and for us, and we’re not sure things will pick up even when a young girl on the beach delivers an unexpected warning: turns out there are “dead folk who don’t want to stay dead” around these parts. And “they’ve been watching your son.”
Though it toys with our expectations, using some almost Maya Deren-like passages to stir up doubt about what’s actually happening and what might be in Beth’s head, Smith does have something resembling an intelligible explanation waiting for us in the end. In multiple ends, in fact: After a fairly icky climax, the film hits a natural stopping point, then elaborates; then it elaborates again, its indulgence likely to alienate a few viewers who’ve stayed on the ride so far.
Production company: Cut/Off/Tail
Cast: Danika Vandersteen, Woodrow Graves, Terrance Murray, Brit Loder, Andrew Gillis
Director-editor-composer: Seth A. Smith
Screenwriter: Darcy Spidle
Producer: Nancy Urich
Executive producers: Rob Cotterill, Marc Savoie, Alison Lidster
Director of photography: Craig Buckley
Production designer: Paul Hammond
Costume designer: Kathleen Darling
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Midnight Madness)
Sales: Raven Banner Entertainment
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