Directed by: Tricia Lee
Starring: Chelsea Jenish, Sofia Banzhaf, Robert Nolan, Jen Pogue
This intensely scaled Canadian horror, directed by Tricia Lee, is remarkable for what it achieves with a committed small cast, minimal budget and eerie location shooting. I must admit on the whole I’m not a huge fan of horrors, either finding them too nerve inducing or just overly stupid when classic scary movie clichés come into play thick and fast, but in the case of this movie I was pleasantly surprised, and I must say it works a lot better than most horror films mass produced and distributed by Hollywood presently.
It’s a deeply tense story set at a camp in the middle of some woods. Here we find the patients of a silent meditation retreat (apparently misbehaving women), being made better to avoid them heading to jail, under the supervision of a creepy doctor (Nolan). One feisty new arrival by the name of Janey (Jenish) suspects an underlying threat and a more horrific danger is lurking in the woods.
Silence is the name of the game here, as you’d expect taking the title into account, but it never gets silly or annoying. In a few places the idea of keeping quiet to survive turns the metaphorical worrying temperature up on the horror oven. I found myself holding my breath along with Janey and Alexis as they attempted to make no noise for fear of their own lives. It’s a clever notion to link the odd and sinister vibe of this silence camp to the actual need for silence to survive whatever is out there among the trees.
I did prefer the suspenseful and frankly excellent moody atmospheric set up of the first half of this film, compared to the latter half, where it gets more typically horrorific and bloody. The first 45 minutes or so are shot beautifully, with gnarled trees and smoky woods wispily adding to the sinister impression of the place. It feels like an oppressive thriller at the start and that suits it greatly considering the female oppressing camp these young women are situated in. The long and unspoken stares between the girls or between the forever watching men are enough to do the talking, and in these tense lulls of conversation a massive amount of terror is built up nicely.
Some of the actual dialogue isn’t fantastic, and that hits home even further as you don’t get too much of it considering the silent angle the movie is heading for. It isn’t cheesy, but it doesn’t strive too far away from exposition either. It might be because it’s not delivered right, but I think I just preferred the story being hinted to now and then without big moments of conversation needed to reveal things. That of course could very well just be my thinking, and I would perfectly understand if people did like the dialogue, as it isn’t terrible, it just didn’t do much for me.
Silent Retreat surprised me more for its raw sense of character, and, especially in the mould of Alexis and Janey as growing friends, you sense this necessary bond for fighting back. This blossoming connection is acted superbly, and makes a moment between the two in the dark of one of the shady cabins all the more upsetting and yes, genuinely it was sad, a brave and brilliant moment to script in, and sold to the heavens by the actresses involved.
I preferred the atmosphere of the first half; the issue I had with the second half of proceedings can boil down to the fact of what is out there and haunting this retreat. The creature feature decision is a bit too obvious for me, and I would have liked it just being the men taking the girls away to murder. That would have been more shocking, twisted and a study of human behaviour going awry. Introducing some unexplained creature that has its own secret to bear became a tad too much to swallow. The make-up and such looked great on the most part, but they never scared me, and it felt like an excuse to get some deaths shoved onto screen in the most brutal and bloody manner. I always find horrors more enjoying in the tense lead up to shocks and not in the overly gory process of the event itself.
Silent Retreat is a truly atmospheric thriller/horror that takes its ancient and concerning idea of female disempowerment and then flips it on its head, giving the women a chance to be the heroes. The creature too has a chance to shine in leading the way for females to be shown as strong and protective. All in all, Silent Retreat is directed and written with tension, elegance and intelligence.
By Troy Balmayer