'Retreat': Film Review
Debuting feature director Tom Nicoll channels Nicolas Roeg and Robert Eggers with his psychological horror drama.
Exactly how crippling can guilt be? Very, according to producer-writer-director Tom Nicoll, who examines the family ties that bind, whether they should, if we really want them to and how much of an impact they can have on our lives in the low-budget psychological horror drama Retreat. Shot for a meager 25,000 British pounds (roughly $34,000), Retreat is a lean, efficient chiller, if not an outright terrifying one, anchored by an understated central performance from Kim Allan. Genre festivals should sit up and take notice, as will streaming and download services where the film's confined spaces — and budget constraints — will be well-served and easily overlooked.
A young couple, Al (Liam Harkins), an artist, and his girlfriend, Kaitlin (Allan, giving off On Body and Soul's Alexandra Borbely vibes), ditch Glasgow for the Scottish Highlands for a stint as caretakers of a remote B&B for the winter season. Al is looking forward to being able to work on his paintings in peace, and Kaitlin is looking forward to escaping the responsibility of caring for her miserable, PTSD-afflicted soldier brother, Wallace (Jason Harvey). Both Al and Kaitlin have family issues, and both are looking for a surrogate of some kind in the other. Al doesn't speak with his dad, though that's probably a good thing, considering the effect that Kaitlin's words to her brother apparently have. Frustrated with Wallace’s consistently ornery moods and emotional distance, the last thing she tells him before leaving is that she doesn't care what happens to him, and that he's on his own. After just a few days in the country, Kaitlin gets a call informing her that her brother is dead, having taken his life.
With her sibling's death as well as her final words to him haunting her, it's not long before Kaitlin starts seeing enigmatic, recurring symbols around the property, and begins questioning the hidden message in the collage of guest photos in the main house, which is supposed to be off-limits to her and Al, guest relations aside. There are plenty of other rules, too: Don't play the piano, don't ring the decorative gong in the hallway. In her fragile state, Kaitlin starts to defy the rules, sleeping in the house and seeing strangers on the grounds. The nail in her mental stability's coffin is the uncovering of a sinister plot that's targeting her for unknown reasons — and which Al is involved in. Or is it just the quiet and her conscience ganging up on her?
Retreat is the kind of slow-burning, bloodless psychological horror that relies on tension, internalization and potential madness instead of gore for its creepy suspense, a la The Shining and Don't Look Now, and precisely the type of thing that has seen a renaissance in recent years with films like The Witch and The Babadook. That is impressive company, and Nicoll's ambition is clear, even if he doesn’t quite reach those films' lofty heights, in many instances simply because he hasn't developed a compelling language for Kaitlin's emotional dilemma. Even still, Harkins is convincing as a man trying to hold on to a connection he desperately needs as it (a bit suddenly) starts to slip away.
Ben Westaway's cinematography, a lot of it handheld, is fittingly evocative of Kaitlin’s mental and physical isolation, but Retreat often falls into an expositional trap, particularly in its closing moments. Ironically, in this day and age of cinematic bloat, Retreat could have used a few more minutes to give Kaitlin room to grow, giving her breaking point more impact than Allan nonetheless manages. More of her measured withdrawal and rising anxiety would have been welcome for the character. Tech specs belie the film's shoestring budget.
Production company: Nicoll Film Productions
Cast: Kim Allan, Liam Harkins, Jason Harvey, Jane Paul-Gets, Matt Costello, Sophie Brooke
Director-screenwriter-producer: Tom Nicoll
Director of photography: Ben Westaway
Production designer: Alice Cousins
Costume designer: Charlotte Louden
Editor: Alex Burt
Music: Robin Schlochtermeier
Casting: Sophie Sayeed
World sales: Mirovision