Studio: Uncork’d Entertainment
Director: Riccardo Paoletti
Writer: Carlo Longo, Manuela Cacciamani
Producer: Manuela Cacciamani
Stars: Daisy Anne Keeping, David Brandon, Joy Allison Tanner, Eva MacCallum, Martin Kashirokov, Anna Dalton, Lisa Ruth Anreozzi
A teenage girl uncovers a connection between a dark secret in her family’s past and the ancient mystery of a haunted Italian lake.
16-year-old Jenny narrates her own story in “Neverlake,” a gothic fairy tale rich in chilling atmosphere. Born in Italy, Jenny was sent to live with her grandmother in another country after her mother fell ill. Now a teenager, Jenny is returning to Europe’s boot for the first time as she reconnects with her father, Dr. James Brooks.
James knows a lot about his daughter’s life, including the name of a boy she was involved with, yet the narration is clear that Jenny hasn’t visited Italy since early childhood. Jenny and James do not appear to be terribly estranged, although their relationship is awkward. Perhaps he visits her or they stay close another way? Along with what exactly happened to Jenny’s mother, “Neverlake” is unspecific in a number of details, some of which have story purposes, and some of which set up a core dynamic between Jenny and James with a somewhat hazy family tie.
A former surgeon, Jenny’s father now spends his time collecting artifacts from the nearby Lake of Idols in Arezzo. Ancient Etruscans believed that the lake had therapeutic properties. Bronze idols crafted to represent afflicted parts of the body or even entire people were cast into the water as part of a strange ritual to heal the sick. James is suspiciously secretive about his research, to the point where an ominously locked study door and a short temper when Jenny pokes around hint at a conspiratorial mystery.
Jenny becomes further embroiled in that mystery when she stumbles upon a nearby home for sick children. Jenny learns from the children that the Lake of Idols not only heals, but it is also haunted. And the ghosts inhabiting the water want their statues back. Now Jenny has to figure out how to put the spirits to rest while uncovering the secret of her family’s dark connection to the lake.
The ideas behind “Neverlake” are very good. The ghost angle blends with real-world history for an authentically unsettling supernatural backdrop. The other part of the plot involves a body horror drama more grounded in reality. The mixture of both along with how they weave together creates a “best of both worlds” scenario that makes for an engaging thriller culminating in a highly satisfying conclusion. Where the plausibility is undercut however, is in some quickie characterizations that come across as convenient cheats meant for particular actions to take place without reasonable explanations.
Actress Daisy Keeping is incredibly charming as Jenny. Her natural likability reads in her screen presence and establishes a near instant familiarity with her character. But the screenplay gives her traits that try their hardest to unplug Jenny’s connection to the audience.
For some reason, the word “why?” appears nowhere in Jenny’s vocabulary. Her stepmother Olga gives Jenny a handful of capsules and tells her they are vitamins that James wants the girl to take. Rather than verify what they are for, Jenny accepts the pills from the woman she just met and gulps them right down the hatch. Later, one of the children tells Jenny that she has to be the one to throw the statues back into the lake. There is a story reason for this, but the eagerness Jenny displays in doing anything anyone tells her without knowing the context distracts from an otherwise likable character.
Not all of the acting is as good as Keeping’s. David Brandon is well suited as her secretive father, even though their father-daughter bond does not always play as genuine. But while the young actors playing the sick children look their parts, their acting consists of wooden line reading in performances that are more grimace-inducing than they are believable. Although the biggest distraction with the supporting cast is a character so obviously modeled to look and to brood like Edward Cullen that anyone with even a passing notion of Robert Pattinson’s appearance will instantly recall “Twilight.”
The story still remains strong throughout the film, and nearly always sustains intrigue even when the script moves too neatly from one beat to the next. In one instance, James and Olga keep strict tabs on Jenny and go to great pains to keep their secret hidden from her. Then the only time they finally leave her alone in their house is immediately after the children explain that Jenny needs to break into her father’s study. Similarly, to provide closure on one thread, the police arrive at a particular location in a situation where it makes no rational sense that they would have been the first responders, if they would even have been called at all. “Neverlake” instead puts its focus on meatier matters, but it is not as smart as it could be in justifying how all of its pieces sensibly fit together.
“Neverlake” earns a great deal of mileage from its Italian scenery of cobblestone roads, Tuscan villas, and dreary landscapes. Some of that atmosphere relies overmuch on classic horror imagery like creepy dolls, static on a television, and dream sequences, but it still works to complement the setting.
This may have been due to seeing the film on a screener DVD provided by the distributor, but the version I viewed had a fair amount of color desaturation. At first, the bleak palette amplified the dreamlike tone of the movie. After awhile, the energy being sapped from the colors stole a great deal of vibrancy from the scenery.
With moderate tweaking to deepen character development, and cleverer motivations to explain some puzzling behavior, “Neverlake” might have been a true stunner. As is, the film is still an effectively eerie blend of classic ghost story and modern medical horror mystery, as well as an impressive first narrative feature from director Riccardo Paoletti. But a handful of cut corners in the script have “Neverlake” coming up just shy of landing a complete knockout punch.
Review Score: 65