Silent Retreat (2013, 1hr 35 mins)
I saw the Silent Retreat world premiere during the Toronto After Dark Film Festival. The premise of the film came from an idea director Tricia Lee came up with after being at a meditation retreat where there was no talking. She wondered what happened to a fellow attendee when she left without notice. Her experience gave birth to this gothic tale of wayward girls forced to stay at a unique retreat in the woods. They are forbidden to speak and are under a regimented schedule of meditation designed to rehab them into submission, leaving their personalities, emotions and rights in the past. The retreat is run by a severe and sinister doctor (Robert Nolan) and his two creepy sons Paul (Mark Buck) and Albert (Matthew Romantini). An unlikely champion comes in the form of Janey (Chelsea Jenish), a new recruit and a headstrong young woman, who is suspicious of the goals and methods at the retreat. She aims to get to the bottom of some weird secrets, and an even weirder fear of the surrounding woods. Throw in a creature, an underlying girl power message, some great performances from Jenish and Nolan, and you have an interesting and suspenseful film that elevates the teen horror flick to an exercise in gender equality.
At the Q & A after, Lee and the film’s writer Corey Brown explained that they wanted to illustrate how women are silenced and how we need to use our voices to stand up for ourselves. The creature itself was female, representing nature and female rage. I might be getting too bookish here, but from my female perspective, I thought was an interesting concept because the Doctor character controlled the girls but was actually afraid of the creature, who to me was an embodiment of the girls’ rage. He appeased her by leaving offerings to keep himself and his sons safe. Some felt the creature was problematic, but it reminded me of how some men who are still in the dark ages dominate women in order to hide their fear of them. Suppress us enough, and Hell hath no fury…I must mention that Silent Retreat won a Specialty Award for best Canadian Feature Film at the festival.
Clean Break (2012, 1hr 25 mins)
The next film Lee premiered was at BITS Fest called Clean Break. Still utilizing gender issues as a forum, this sassy and cleverly written film really made me a fan of this director and writer team.
Cam (Samy Osman) is a player. Successful and handsome, he has a new lady in his bed almost nightly. He shares a house with his two roommates, Scott (Sean Kaufmann) and Dan (Serge Plourde), and things work well between the three of them. Scott is a bit lost, with very little confidence and life not working out as he wanted it to. At Cam’s office event, Scott meets Tracy (Tianna Nori), a pretty, prim and proper woman who sees Scott’s vulnerability and latches on real quick. You see, Tracy’s last boyfriend didn’t work out because he didn’t adhere to her plan, and Tracy has to be obeyed. Or else she will cut you. Deep. Like, deadly deep. With renewed hope that her life will get back on track, Tracy works on Scott’s life with intense purpose. Like a black widow, she weaves her conniving web. She re-invents him and takes charge of many things in his life, including the relationship with his best buds. This in turn, alienates the guys from Scott, especially Cam, who develops a hatred and mistrust of Tracy. So begins a war that becomes increasingly nasty and dangerous, with deadly results.
I can’t say enough about Clean Break. This pixie loves a fresh and clever movie, and I thought it was slick, sinister and fun. The setting was distinctly Toronto, which I loved because this city never gets the acknowledgement it deserves. I loved the style of the film-it was sharp and minimalistic, and the performances were spot-on. Osman really captured the typical Torontonian player: Handsome, smooth, and wily. I felt like I’ve met guys like Cam in my heyday. Nori played the hell out of Tracy. She was intense and driven with a large helping of seething crazy. And you’d better watch out if she puts her hair up in a ponytail!
The chemistry between enemies Cam and Tracy was really great. Their growing hatred created tension and suspense and added to the dark comedy element. They represented extreme versions of the male and female perspectives. There was a real war of the sexes between macho bravado and the desperate gal who just wants true love; stereotypes brought to life and pitted against each other for a new take on a slasher flick. What balanced the stereotypical portrayal of male and female roles was Cam’s love interest Cassandra, played by Leora Morris. She was on to Cam’s player ways and took her chances. A woman of the times, she struggled with being her own person, gaining respect and wanting love just like Tracy, just not in a crazy, psycho killer sort of way.
Lee and Brown answered some questions from the audience after the film. When asked about the concept for the film, Brown told us that he went with the idea that you can choose your roommates but not who they date, and the story evolved from there. The movie was made before Silent Retreat on a super-low budget (the main set being Lee’s parents’ house). It took 12 days to shoot, but around 2 years to edit. Nori really wanted the role of Tracy and it was her first lead in a feature film. I asked about Tracy’s look, because it was distinctly retro and polished. I wanted to know if they had that look in mind when they were developing the character. Brown revealed that the character was supposed to be a brunette but when they saw Nori, they knew right away she was right for the role. Lee explained that they wanted a Stepford Wives type of look, controlled and clean. It really played a great opposition to her maniacal personality.
Silent Retreat and Clean Break are two fun and creepy (but not frivolous) contributions from Lee and Brown. They make smart horror films that give you a decent scare and food for thought. I can’t wait for what’s next!