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VENICE – After receiving attention for her short films, German director Alex Schmidt moves into features with Forgotten (Du hast es versprochen). Stylish and atmospheric, this is entertainingly old-school horror for much of its running time, stuffed with such tried-and-true ingredients as creepy children, a creaking, isolated house, seemingly spectral presences and whispering woods on a misty island full of cagey locals. But the plotting becomes progressively more laborious as the supernatural elements evaporate in the over-explanatory final third.
The film has a pleasing throwback feel to ‘70s psychological horror, and the principal setting could just as easily be off the coast of, say, Maine as Germany. Schmidt, who shares screenplay credit with Valentin Mereutza, has certainly studied the tricks of the genre. She peppers her scenes with sudden shocks and sinister imagery, even if she relies too much on Marian Lux’s malevolent score to sustain the chill.
The intriguing opening has two nine-year-old girls playing in the snowy woods near a vacation house. As they approach some stone ruins with an underground chamber, Hanna (Greta Oceana Dethlefs) scares Clarissa (Alina Sophie Antoniadis) with a story about a mute girl who never aged. This caused the spooked villagers to imprison her in the shaft below, where she vowed to get payback by finding someone to take her place. Once inside, the friends are startled to glimpse another girl in the darkness before the action cuts to them fleeing the scene, their clothes splashed with blood.
Twenty-five years later, Hanna (Mina Tander) is a doctor with a daughter, Lea (Lina Kohlert), and a husband (Clemens Schick) she just discovered has been cheating on her. She gets an ER call to treat a woman for an accidental overdose of sleeping pills, who turns out to be her childhood friend Clarissa (Laura de Boer). Since both women have hit a rough patch, Clarissa suggests they take Lea for a break at the island house where their families vacationed as kids.
The minute they arrive, Hanna’s insomnia kicks in, while a whole suitcase full of repressed memories start spilling out. There are ominous signs and warnings from the witchy fishmonger (Katharina Thalbach) and the reclusive caretaker of the house (Thomas Sarbacher), though a young fisherman (Max Riemelt) appears more welcoming. Most disturbing are the frequent sightings of a mysterious girl, Maria (Mia Kassalo), who apparently disappeared without a trace back when they were children.
Hanna learns from a photo album that Maria was her playmate before Clarissa came along. But she has no recollection of the girl until a memory flash serves up that old standard of a finger-prick blood bond and a pledge to be best friends forever.
Schmidt and Mereutza’s screenplay lays the groundwork with a deft balance of information and enigma, supplying teasing connections to the film’s opening scene. Wedigo von Schultzendorff’s moody visuals and Andreas Radke’s nimble editing help to fortify the suspense. But as Hanna pieces together more of the past and her terror escalates, the story becomes overworked and clichéd. It acquires a convoluted fussiness that dampens the scares and dulls the involvement despite all the physical and psychological carnage on the way to a big “surprise” switcheroo.
Tander’s performance in the central role is compelling but not everyone is as measured, notably de Boer, who pushes the ambiguous intensity a little hard. Ultimately, however, it’s the screenplay more than anything that shortchanges Forgotten. What starts out as an intoxicating brew of clouded memory, imagination and fear disappointingly devolves into a more effortful tale of maniacal revenge that’s laced with improbabilities and doesn’t know when to end.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Production companies: Wuste Film Ost, Wuste Film, Magnolia Filmproduktion, ZDF
Cast: Mina Tander, Laura de Boer, Katharina Thalbach, Max Riemelt, Clemens Schick, Thomas Sarbacher, Greta Oceana Dethlefs, Alina Sophie Antoniadis
Director: Alex Schmidt
Screenwriters: Alex Schmidt, Valentin Mereutza
Producers: Yildiz Ozcan, Stefan Schubert, Ralph Schwingel
Director of photography: Wedigo von Schultzendorff
Production designer: Jorg Mohring
Music: Marian Lux
Costume designer: Maria Schicker
Editor: Andreas Radke
Sales: Beta Cinema
No rating, 102 minutes
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