Saturday, November 04, 2017

The Ecstasy of Isabel Mann – review

Director: Jason Figgis

Release date: 2012

Contains spoilers

Hidden very much under the radar, this unusual genre entry was released in 2012 in its native Ireland but for the most part has gone unnoticed. What makes you think through the film is the nature of the vampires. Are they natural, albeit part of a cult it seems, or are they supernatural?

Not that the V word is used within the film at any given point. The film is also a tad over the top. For example the main inspector, John Witham (Neill Fleming), is perhaps more abrasive and, well, out and out abusive than any cop dealing with kids would ever get away with. We’ll come back to that.

Acacius chases
As we start, however, in black and white we see a man’s face. A victim screams as they are fed on and we see a woman, bloodied, running. She is chased by the man, credited as Acacius (Darren Travers), and with the sounds and the look, the gnashing of teeth as he ran, I was more minded of a post-Romero running zombie than a vampire. He seems to be catching up to her. To be honest the first thought was that this was Isabel Mann (Ellen Mullen) – especially as we see her in the next (colour) scene – but I’m not too sure.

getting home
As it is we see Isabel come through her front door, she is covered in blood (how she didn’t leave a little bit of a trail of blood through the house is one of those suspension of disbelief moments). From another room her dad asks if she is alright and she answers in the affirmative and goes upstairs, into the shower still clothed, washing the blood away and sobbing. We see her remember standing before Acacius, though this is a memory in colour.

tears in the shower
Later we see her with her dad. He speaks to her of being the rock holding the family together given that, “Mam’s been gone eight years now.” As he says this we see a photo of her mother (Mirjana Rendulic). Isabel has two brothers, aspiring heavy metal artist Marcus (Kevin Buckley) and younger schoolkid Josh (Killian O'Farrell). At the breakfast table Isabel declares that she is unwell and is not going to school. We see a woman in her bedroom with her.

daughter and mother
So, let us start to look at the weave of strange story before us. When I suggested that it might not be Isabel running across the field from, apparently, the vampiric attack it is because with the photography we see a dark-haired woman but little detail. It is subsequently seeing her in the house that makes us assume it was Isabel. However it might have been Isabel’s mother and if the woman in her room looks familiar it is because we have just seen her photo. Isabel’s mother is one of the vampires and even if she was not the one we saw running it is safe to assume mother and daughter walk the same path. Further, when her father said “Mam’s been gone” the assumption is naturally that she’s dead but it could just mean she walked away from the family?

interviewing the schoolkids
What we do know is when we see Acacius again, in a shot again in black and white, it is Isabel with him and she does feed from the victim and also, in a vampire trope mainstay, from Acacius’ wrist. Let’s leave Isabel for a moment as Inspector Witham and Sgt. Paul Barrett (Matthew Toman) attend the school. Now I said his dialogue is a tad over the top. The man would be suspended from the Garda, I am sure, for his abusive attitude to both the principal (Geraldine McComish) and the one kid we see him interview – who happens to be Aaron (Adam Tyrrell), Isabel’s erstwhile boyfriend. However, the film actually addresses the acerbic nature of his dialogue within the wider dialogue, twice.

Neill Fleming as Witham
This is important as we have entered the story not even half way through but three-quarters of the way through, and the dialogue choices explains to the viewer the urgency of the questioning. 9 children from the school and a bank teller have gone missing. The police have found no trace of them bar blood concentrated at a given spot. No bodies, no trace hair or fabric from victims or attackers. The Garda, frankly, are baffled (so baffled that they don’t have a permanent monitoring of that bit of woodland going on). Witham’s gut is pointing him towards Isabel, however. She was friends with some of the missing, in fact 3 of them were on their way to see her when they vanished. She has ditched her boyfriend and friends and started hanging out with a younger self-harmer.

the family who eat together...
What we see is the unravelling, I guess, but what the film doesn’t offer are answers. Isabel’s mother was bipolar and there is an assumption by the police that Isabel has developed the mental illness. Certainly, in severe bipolar disorder there might be hallucinations and delusions. Is that what the vampires are? Or are they a non-supernatural cult who have initiated Isabel at her mother’s urging? Perhaps they are supernatural? That would explain the fact that they leave no trace evidence for modern forensics and also the return of Isabel’s mother if she died rather than left.

an attack
The film is silent on these things, but the ambiguity is purposefully built into the screenplay and thus something to make you thoughtful rather than frustrated. This flew so low under the radar that I broke a cardinal rule and read the (one) IMDb review before writing this. The reviewer was unimpressed, deeming it another angst vampire film, but is it? The title, the use of the word ecstasy, suggests the polar opposite and yet Isabel doesn’t seem ecstatic. Perhaps because we see so little of the primary story, parachuting in so late in the game. Be it that she is extremely bipolar, being inducted into a cult or turned, we only see the most traumatic aspect of the story and are left to imagine the suggested ecstasy – the ecstasy of blood, the ecstasy of finding her missing mother.

screaming
I will also mention, as it gives a clue to our lore, the disdain shown in that review for a kill achieved through a slap. Isabel may have only slapped the victim but she did it with force. We know this because the victim's head hit a radiator and left a trail of blood down it. That is some force. Perhaps part of being a vampire, the strength beyond that of a mortal, perhaps the strength of mania or the delusional belief that all she did was slap when she did more? We do know, by the end, that Isabel, a teenager with a slight build, is able to overpower a grown man. Perhaps I am reading too much in?

feeding from Acacius' wrist
This is a strange entry into the genre. There is a powerful victim/feed montage sequence to music where the music seemed almost inappropriate to the scene and yet one felt that was deliberate too. The need to keep everything off kilter and to do so deliberately, I believe, is what made the film for me but I don’t think everyone will enjoy the ride and feel it is likely to be a love it or hate it. I fell towards the former. 7.5 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

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