Bobby Diabolus takes a look at new supernatural horror The Heiress from first-time director, Chris Bell...
The Heiress (UK, Chris Bell, 2021) marks the solo directorial debut of Chris Bell, a face more recognisable for acting in an array of Brit gangster flicks over the last few years. Here he marshals a cast of performers familiar from television through a tale of family secrets and supernatural pacts.
The plot revolves around Claire (Candis Neergard, delivering a sterling performance and doing a lot of the on-screen heavy lifting), a troubled young woman who, after the death of her beloved grandmother, Nanny Abigail, becomes a lot more troubled. The rest of the film will not be entirely unfamiliar to anyone who has paid attention to the goings-on in the horror genre recently ( Hereditary, Relic, Sator, et al) – a sister, Anna (Jayne Wisener), who can’t cope with Claire’s erratic behaviour; a dad who thinks it’s all in her head; a devoutly Catholic mother who calls in the local priest – but The Heiress still manages to raise some scares. In fact, there is a fair bit more going on under-the-hood than its low budget and straight-to-VOD air suggests.
It weaves in some solid folk-horror trappings (cursed land, cunning folk, fairy tales, creepy masks) alongside modern kitchen sink drama (basically suburban London accents and a bit of shouting). The figures that infest the sisters’ house (unseen by Anna) are well designed and Bell has a good eye for building a jump scare and making pay off. Several times the creeping dread of shadows under the door and movement on the stairs are used to great effect.
Kudos to whoever location scouted the movie too. The house that the sisters live in is perfect. It is a classic identikit new-build estate house, but in some of the night scenes, when lit in just the right way, it looks like a Black Forest witch’s cottage, something from the pen of the Brothers Grimm. The movie is at its best when it plays to this juxtaposition – the fairytale invading the modern. In fact, I found the flashback scenes, where Claire is a child and hearing family history, and some folk-tales at the knee of Nanny Abigail, the most effective in the movie. As well as providing the obligatory exposition dump they take some wicked and delightful left-turns.
The film maintains its pace well (too often these types of movie fall into a ‘see a ghost – no one believes – see a ghost – no one believes’ spiral in the middle) and while it doesn’t carry many surprises it does deliver some good frights. If there is one criticism of the plot it is that there are a few too many ideas (hidden books, blood curses, the Apocrypha, witchcraft) and it perhaps would have been better to have had one core reason for the supernatural events fully explored rather than a number of hints. I’m nitpicking, though, as I really enjoyed a few of the turns it takes, especially as an avowed folk-horror nerd.
As mentioned, the performances are uniformly good, although some of the characters feel a touch under-written (Anna’s boyfriend, Dan, suffers from a few personality reversals that I don’t think are meant to signify a fully developed character arc, more that he does what’s needed in a scene to push the narrative on). The only real bone I have to pick with the writing is the depiction of Claire’s mental health. All we are told is that she has been ‘off work’ for a while and takes ‘tablets’. The entire mental health subplot is really only in there to give extra weight to nobody believing her story, which is a shame as the ‘neurotic woman’ trope could have been more neatly subverted. The backstory is certainly there.
It was good to see a modern home being haunted too for once. It is not a derelict old pile or even a mouldy council house (not a dig at His House (UK, Remi Weekes, 2020) which I thought was excellent, but there does seem to be a pattern of modern, urban ghost stories being set in grotty council houses as if to say hauntings only happen to the rich in big houses or the poor in crappy ones). It is just a normal, suburban strip house. In this way, it pays a bit of a tribute to Poltergeist (USA, Tobe Hooper, 1982). Good to see the middle-class get a spooking for once.
The Heiress may not quite be a future classic but there is certainly enough here to warrant the genre fan’s attention and first-time feature director Chris Bell certainly shows a talent for horror. Witches, ghosts, secrets, lies, a great final line – what’s not to like?
The Heiress is released on VOD on 15 March 2021.