Solstice (US-2008; dir. Dan Myrick)
College student Megan is still grieving over the apparent suicide of her twin sister, Sophie, as she and her friends head off to the wilds of Louisiana to celebrate Seniors Week and the summer solstice. Megan hopes staying with her friends in the family home of her childhood will dispel the cloud of darkness that has been hanging over her for months. But the summer solstice is a time when the wall between this world and the next is thin and Megan finds herself increasingly aware of odd noises and strange happenings — a victim of ominous music, dream/reality jump-cuts and feelings of foreboding provoked by clichéd locals and a carefully placed camera. She as well as the viewer is soon convinced that Sophie’s spirit is in the house and trying to communicate with her. But what is her dead twin trying to say?
The definition of what makes a horror film has been hijacked and narrowed in recent times, thanks to the loud insistence of movies by the likes of Rob Zombie, Eli Roth and Alexandre Aja. Ghosts in horror films are expected to be intensely visceral and bloody, wielding axes and chainsaws borrowed from their still-living, increasingly inbred cousins. Generally speaking modern celluloid ghosts are more interested in slashing than in haunting.
There’s nothing new in this, of course, but the prevalence of such in-your-face violence makes it hard for more traditional ghosts to be heard over the din. Many fans — with the Twitter-fostered attention spans of a thrown brick — look for action, violence and gore from go-to-whoa. Creepiness, quiet build-up and soul-wrenching revelations are barely noticed and can expect to be expelled from the cinema until they learn how to get to level 20 of Grand Theft Auto before the popcorn hits the oven roof.
But Horror as a genre is about much more than being horrified. Horror is about the violation of social and personal norms using defined tropes, our fear that what we think is solid truth isn’t and the dark imagery of an insistent mortality. It’s about guilt and loss and despair. It’s not only about the axe that descends from nowhere but also the chill of recognition that comes when the spirit of your long-dead victim rings at midnight to whisper half heard aphorisms into the phone. To expel ethereal ghost stories, with their gothic intimations of other realities and blood culpability, from the canon of Horror is absurd. Thankfully not all filmmakers feel the necessity to join the torch- and pitchfork-waving villagers in the manhunt, even though the less genre-savvy will accuse them of being boring.
Solstice, directed by Daniel Myrick of The Blair Witch Project fame, is a supernatural drama that does not rely on violence and gore, or even intense feelings of horror. Rather it goes for slowly built eeriness and situation development, and the hope that by the time the thrills come along you’ll be in the right mood to receive them. It is, in fact, in a tradition of ghost films that are as much supernatural whodunits as they are horror thrillers. It has its moments of shock, but they tend to gather at the far end of the narrative. Most of the film is made up of interpersonal drama, intimations of immortality and subtle revelations that not everything, not even the resident ghost, is what it seems.
Not that Solstice is a great ghost film. It generally lacks distinction, the characters hovering on the border between interesting and bland — though the capable young actors do a good job of guiding us over the stereotypes. Much of it is clichéd, or at least unremarkable. But to its credit it works its tale of grief and guilt with an intelligent willingness to use the clichés and what we deduce from them in order to lead us astray. In a few places this works very well indeed and suddenly the caricatures take on a more complex inner life.
In the meantime the film is slickly produced and cleanly photographed, well-thought-out, and, though slow to build, effectively paced for those not suffering from cinematic ADD. By the end, if you haven’t imaginatively left the cinema already, it reaches a strong conclusion — full of rain and fear and spectral vengeance — and may be considered a decent, if lesser, addition to the genre.
- Reviewed by Robert Hood
- This review first appeared on Horrorscope.