Seth A Smith’s superb horror film, The Crescent, is a challenging watch, not afraid to withhold its secrets until it’s damned well good and ready to reveal them. There’s no telegraphing of plot points, nor is there obvious foreshadowing. For a while, in fact, it seems like there’s not much going on. Don’t be decieved by the delicate structuring of the story. When the puzzle pieces all come together, the picture it creates is disturbing and satisfying.
After losing her husband in an accident, Beth (Danika Vandersteen) takes her son, Lowen (Woodrow Graves), to her grandmother’s home by the sea. They are looking for a change of scenery, a place to collect themselves and heal. Beth is numb, wandering through the days with a blank expression, operating on auto-pilot. Lowen is a toddler, still in diapers, new to walking and talking. Blissfully unaware of what’s happening in his life, he just wants toys and sandwiches. When he asks where his father is, Beth explains it away by saying he got lost, like their cat did.
Beth is an artist. She does marbling, a process in which acrylic paint is dropped into a carageenan solution. This makes the paint float to the top, creating different patterns. It gives the painting an almost fluid feel, and director Smith uses this process to his full advantage. Visually, this is a movie about water. Memory sequences are displayed as ripples. The marbling technique, shown in great detail, is a complete immersion into the wet paint suspension. The incessant waves of the sea are practically always in view, and the ocean constantly roars in the background.
But there are some things askew in that beachfront community. The other inhabitants behave strangely and have little respect for boundaries. They have a tendency to stand in the surf and watch Beth and Lowen’s house. And rumor has it there’s something special about the water itself. None of that explains why their dead cat is back, playing with Lowen on the stairs.
Vandersteen gives an excellent performance as Beth. Her face perfectly portrays the shocked vacuity of grief. She’s there, but she’s not there. It’s a loss of emotion rather than the lack of it, and that makes her work relatable.
But the real star of the film is Woodrow Graves as Lowen, because he is maybe two years old. Smith makes a brave directorial choice by positioning a huge chunk of the film from his point of view. His inherent lack of understanding amplifies the terror in these sequences; he doesn’t get what is going on any more than the audience does. They are easily the scariest scenes in the movie, pushing all the child-in-danger buttons possible and touching on abandonment issues. It helps that Lowen isn’t a screamer, like the kid in The Babadook. He’s so stinkin’ cute, the thought of anything bad happening to him puts a knot in the audience’s collective stomach. It’s a stunning risk and it pays off handsomely.
How the hell did this kid learn lines? How did he remember the blocking? He seems far too young to be a professional, but there he is spouting important dialogue and hitting his marks. It’s incredible to see a child this young carrying entire sections of a film. When my kid was two, I couldn’t get him to sit still for more than 90 seconds, much less perform in front of cameras and a crew.
Calling The Crescent a “slow burn” is an understatement. From an action standpoint, things don’t really get rolling until about 46 minutes in. But from the opening frames, there is a tremendous sense of dread instilled. Much of that is due to the great electronic score (also by Smith, who evokes some of the best work of Steve Moore here). You know something awful is going to happen to Beth and Lowen. You just feel it, like the heaviness in the air before a thunderstorm.
The Crescent is a Seth Smith showcase. As director, editor, and composer, he brings Darcy Spidle’s finely nuanced script to life brilliantly. With visual effects that function not as distraction, but as a fully integrated storytelling element, The Crescent is a gorgeous film, combining the muted palette of the Nova Scotia seashore and the crazy, barely controlled chaos of Beth’s marbling work into a cohesive whole.
The Crescent may be a way-homer (you’ll probably figure the whole thing out on the way home), but it’s a slow and beautiful journey into the choppy seas of loss and despair, and the horrors that lie beneath those waves.
Distributed by Raven Banner, The Crescent opens in Canada August 10th and the United States on September 3.