These comments originally appeared at Christianity Today Entertainment Blog during the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival.
Speaking of horror films, there seems to have sprung up a subgenre in recent years that plays on cultural fears regarding the loss of civil liberties and personal safety.
Perhaps it isn’t fair to call movies like Syriana or Rendition horror films, but in their willingness to be explicit about the details of torture, they often play on the surface as horror films, at times being more disturbing for their proximity to real life than the increasingly cartoonish gorefests with roman numerals in the titles that seem to get released every other week and disappear just as quickly.
The Disappearance of Alice Creed has all the ingredients of a horror-porn exploitation film, but its genius lies in withholding enough information from us that while we think we know what we are watching, we aren’t entirely sure.
If horror is about giving expression to our deepest cultural fears (Frankenstein of science run amok, Dracula of xenophobic fears of miscegenation), The Disappearance of Alice Creed simultaneously brings to light and exploits our moral uncertainties about entertainment (is any message worth subjecting ourselves to some of the images we do?) and, especially, torture. Because the first response to squeamishness about torture is to demonize the object of torture, the film effectively forestalls that first move by not allowing us to know for certain who Alice is or what is motivating the men who kidnap her.
That is not to say the film is morally ambiguous. Rather than forcing us to eschew moral judgment in a wishy-washy postmodern way, it forces us first to contemplate the thing itself, absent context. Rather than taking someone who we know has done “x” and asking the question, “Does “x” deserve this?” the film shows what is done and forces us to ask, “Does anyone deserve this?” (Okay, really, “Is anything worth this?”)
If the film had actually gone all the way and really explored the implications of its premise, I would have been a lot more forgiving of its gratuitous excesses. Alas, it ultimately became more of a psychological thriller than a horror film, and as such invites the audience to enjoy too much the twists and turns to be taken seriously on any level other than exploitainment. Director J. Blakeson specifically mentioned admiring the Coen brothers for their ability to integrate dark humor into their films, but in spirit and flesh, Alice Creed reminded me much more of a Tarantino film than a Coen film.
Eddie Marsan will be familiar to some viewers coming off a star-making turn in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, and Gemma Arterton somehow, miraculously manages to convey enough genuine terror to make you believe you are a watching a real person and not an actress who has read the last page of the script and knows she will be okay in the end.
There were some concerns raised in the Q&A about scenes played for laughs which I can’t really repeat without giving some major spoilers but which I was glad were raised by younger viewers tired of certain stereotypes. Want to know what I found most horrific and uncomfortable in the film? The number of times the words “I love you” were said and meant and the implications that has for what a society producing that film understands love to be.