Studio: Vertical Entertainment
Director: Rob Heydon
Writer: Donald Martin
Producer: Rob Heydon
Stars: Adam Brody, Amanda Crew, Zoe Belkin, Krista Bridges, Booth Savage, Dayo Ade, Michael Miranda, Sheila McCarthy
After experiencing a personal tragedy, a young couple learns their budding family’s fate connects to a satanic conspiracy next door.
Matt and Larissa have appeared in countless movies prior to “Isabelle,” just under different names and played by different people. They’re the quintessential young couple. She’s pregnant. He has a promising new job. The next step in achieving their shared dream of starting a family involves buying a home with a perfect nursery for the baby on the way. This being a horror film, Matt and Larissa’s new house also comes with curious new neighbors.
Wearing all black and a perpetually frazzled frown, weird widow Ann Pelway peeks at Larissa from behind a curtain next door. Upstairs, Ann’s wheelchair-bound daughter Isabelle looks at Larissa from a window. You’ll have to get used to the leers as much as Larissa. Isabelle, both the movie and the character, uses peeping and peering as the chief currency for putting stare-based scares in the register. If Isabelle’s gaze doesn’t unsettle you like it does Larissa, the film will run far longer than 80 minutes.
A word of warning about potentially troublesome triggers. To kick its story into gear, Larissa suffers a trauma that sends her into a downward spiral of depression and suicidal thoughts. Brought back home, Larissa’s manic behavior morphs into paranoid madness when she becomes convinced something insidious spurs Isabelle’s constant gawking.
Online research, a standard trope for introducing exposition yet employed with unmotivated abruptness here, informs Larissa about Isabelle’s dark past. Ann apparently married a devil worshipper, and her husband Frank pledged their paralyzed daughter to Satan through a series of rituals that sexually abused Isabelle. Already haunted by awful hallucinations, this revelation turns Larissa’s fear into frenzy.
Believing his wife might be under the influence of a malevolent entity, Matt turns to a priest, Larissa’s sister, and finally a holistic healer for help. What the couple gradually uncovers is an occult plot pitting Larissa and Isabelle against one another in a spiritual battle only one of them can win.
“Isabelle” probably could have gone further with its limited fright factor if its key characters were seasoned with more flavor. In its current condition of subdued satanic creepiness, the movie merely meets moderately above average expectations for a routine possessed pregnancy thriller.
Picture “Isabelle” progressing inside a spiral straw. Plotting circles redundant loops repeatedly, particularly the beat of Larissa experiencing yet another Isabelle sighting, before coming back around to move forward. There’s only so much tiptoeing around and jumping at visions a viewer can sit through. At some point, suspense has to lead somewhere it can finally deliver on its buildup. “Isabelle” rarely gives its spooks time to rise above room temperature, resulting in a lot of low impact thrills.
Come-and-go characters also gum up the gears of momentum. Matt has a receptionist who may or may not be/come a mistress. Who knows, relevance doesn’t accompany her inclusion. Larissa has a sister who only bridges the gap between Larissa and a spiritualist. The spiritualist’s primary purpose is to provide supernatural solutions the ineffectual priest doesn’t have.
Matt’s state trooper father has something to say about Matt’s absentee mother. Larissa has a parallel revelation about the true fate of her father. “Isabelle” oddly elects to detour down such sidetracks with only 20 minutes to go, when the audience has long lost incentive to further invest empathetic emotion.
Amanda Crew and Adam Brody do what they can to make mountains from molehill characterizations, although scripting favoring function over form ties them to pedestrian personalities. Brody’s vaguely vacant presence feels cursory, an obligatory addition to imply “you’re crazy” when his wife complains of nightmares and conspiracies. Crew hits familiar notes expected of her Rosemary Woodhouse clone, which is all any actor can do when a film commits itself to formula.
Bleakness abounds in “Isabelle,” and that’s a heads or tails tossup regarding how its TV movie tone will personally appeal to you. A slightly sapped color palette paints an appropriately overcast atmosphere. Echoing piano keys on the sparse score perform their part to cautiously establish eeriness. “Isabelle” gets a good deal of the way there as a mildly moody psychological thriller, but slows to a skip when it settles for spinning its wheels.
For a more satisfying Canadian-lensed horror film whose postpartum possession plot puts more chills onscreen, check out director Brandon Christensen’s “Still/Born” (review here). It appears both filmmaking teams operated from identical agendas. Except where “Still/Born” is memorably macabre, “Isabelle” is only mediocre.
Review Score: 60