A fish, newly baited, wriggles in front of the camera before being dropped into a red bucket held by a clearly apprehensive small girl. The opening shot of Disappearance at Clifton Hill, the third Indie feature film by Canadian Director Albert Shin, quickly sets the mood of unease in this psychological thriller.
The sense of menace builds as the film tracks behind the lone girl carrying a bucket down a dark forest trail, broken by a rustle among the trees and the surreal appearance of a one-eyed boy who mimes for her to stay silent. Is she seeing this and his subsequent abduction or possible murder by an improbably strange looking couple in a silver car or did she imagine it? Why does she not mention what has profoundly disturbed her when she is reunited with her family later in the same scene?
The film echoes a parallel experience in the life of Shin whose Korean parents moved to the Niagara Falls area of Canada when he was a young child. Like Abby in the film, Shin believes he may have witnessed a kidnapping as a child but is aware how memory can distort an experience over time.
Abby, played by British actor Tuppence Middleton, now a nervy 32-years-old, is seen returning to the down at heel town of her youth in the aftermath of her mother’s death. She wants to thwart the disposal of the seedy Rainbow Hill Motel owned by her family, which is about to be sold off to the local property speculator Charles Lamb and camps out on the site.
Tension with her sister is clearly riding high especially when she ropes her brother-in-law in to report the 25-year-old abduction to the local police force, only to be interviewed by a rookie cop she had attempted to seduce the night before. Already having her marked down as a fantasist, after she improbably claims to be a virgin and then immediately contradicts herself, the cop refuses to take her seriously.
Abby then begins to try and unravel the mystery herself and as she does so the plot becomes entwined with a series of larger than life characters: a husband; a wife; celebrity duo The Magnificent Moulins, whose magic act involves a tiger in a cage, and who seemed to have stepped out of the pages of a Stan Lee graphic novel along with their shadowy female assistant who bears an alarming resemblance to the woman Abby remembers from the abduction. And what did happen to the Moulins’ son? Returning to the scene of the crime she sees a deep-sea diver emerge from the water at the very spot where her fish was reeled in 25 years earlier.
This is 77-year-old Walter, played by film director, David Cronenburg. Walter is the last surviving member of a family known as the Diving Bells whose hobby is scouring the waters of the gorge for detritus ranging from wedding rings to corpses. In the past he also went fishing for clues about the missing Moulin boy but the police department has dismissed him as a conspiracy theorising podcasting ‘wacko’.
The film shot exclusively in Niagara Falls town (on the Canadian side) is portrayed as a seedy cross between Vegas and Atlantic City and includes scenes in an existing UFO themed restaurant in the town centre where Walter records his podcasts – ironically reflecting the sci-fi themes of many of Cronenburg’s own films. In this, as in so many other ways, there are cross-overs between drama and real life and the film curiously evokes echoes of Mulholland Drive as some of the dark themes merge into the unsettling and unbelievable.
Middleton plays a strong central lead, at one time focused and sure of herself at other times hopelessly at sea and clearly psychologically troubled. Other characters are less well developed or presented by the writers, Shin and James Schultz, as deliberate caricatures, though the character of Walter gives Cronenburg some interesting scenes on the other side of the camera.
Inconsistent in places with a tangled theme, which becomes increasingly bizarre, this is nonetheless a film worthy of a viewing. The strong soundtrack composed by Alexander Sowinski and Leland Whitty adds effectively to the sense of menace and uncertainty that pervades the film. Do not expect a neat ending – just an intriguing one.★ ★ ★ ★
Disappearance At Clifton Hill will be available on Digital Download from 20 July and on DVD from 3 August 2020.
Directed by Albert Shin
Written by Albert Shin and James Schultz
Soundtrack Alexander Sowinski & Leland Whitty
Starring Tuppence Middleton, Hannah Gross and Marie-Josée Croze, David Cronenburg
Running time 1 hour, 40 minutes