When done well, slow-burn horror can feel like an endlessly tense experience in which discomfort is the ultimate feeling. The brooding atmosphere and rising tension, along with occasional acts of graphic violence, enhance the characters and story playing out in front of us. The Inhabitant is a film that tries hard to fit into this mould. It’s a genre-bending film, using traditional horror tropes like jump scares, a string-filled score and disturbing violence in a drama-orientated tale about dealing with trauma and mental health.
The Inhabitant opens with a novel’s worth of ‘text-position’ (exposition in the form of text), explaining the legend of Lizzie Borden (seriously, every time I thought the opening text had finished, another paragraph faded onto the screen). Lizzie Borden, who is a real person in which this movie has based her legend, in the late 1800s was tried and acquitted for murdering two people with an axe. However, it seems her evil spirit lived on through the generations of her family, with violent murders often being connected or associated with Borden’s descendants.
Tara (Odessa A’zion), a descendant of Borden, is haunted by hallucinations of a woman in a white dress. These visions are so real and debilitating to Tara, that her parents, Emily (Leslie Bibb) and Ben (Dermot Mulroney), work tirelessly to help her as she slowly becomes increasingly unable to distinguish her visions from reality. As Tara and her family battle her inner demons, mysterious deaths and disappearances begin occurring in their hometown, all with connections in some way to Tara. Attempting to find answers as to why she feels unhinged, Tara begins to investigate the history of her family, and of Lizzie Borden, leading to devastating consequences the deeper she goes.
The opening five minutes of The Inhabitant follows a random woman, going on an evening run through her hometown. Occasionally, an eeriness sets in, whether its lurking shadows or brooding music, but this elongated scene doesn’t do much to ask its audience to be interested. Ultimately, the scene ends of a reasonably brutal murder by a creepy, elusive figure in a white dress. Th issue with the scene is the lack of tension that leads to this moment. In the sixty second leading up to the kill, the dread of something inevitably bad happening begins to set in, however the four or so minutes that preceded it, after the hefty text-filled opening, unfortunately sets the tone and pace for a movie that often ebbs and flows between uninteresting and mildly tense.
Screenwriter Kevin Bachar has a career based in documentaries. In fact, The Inhabitant, according to his filmography, seems to be his first fictional work (although technically, elements are inspired by real life people and events). His screenplay is a mix-and-match of tones that never really focuses on the two things it’s trying to be. On one side of the coin, this is a family drama about incredibly sympathetic parents who want to help their distressed child, and the exhausting impact it has on them. This is where the story is at it’s strongest, with A’zion giving what comes across as a truly exhaustive performance, both mentally and physically, as Tara. With the material that she has, A’zion breathes believability and forces compassion from the audience in every scene. The family drama is also complimented by strong supporting performances from Bibb and Mulroney, who convey the anguish a parent would surely feel in this situation, but in a grounded, emotion driven way.
On the other side of the coin, is a psychological horror that feels too subdued to be scary, and too tonally distant from the family drama to make sense of it’s need within Tara’s story. Yes, the backstory of Lizzie Borden and her haunting spirit serve as a catalyst for most of Tara’s mental health issues, but it never feels right within this movie. Director Jerren Lauder, who is no stranger to horror films, does his best to visually capture the brooding atmosphere The Inhabitant tries to convey. His use of lighting and sharp lenses does well to physically shows that there are supposed to be horror elements here, especially when it comes to some of the brutal violence later in the film. However, it’s doesn’t do enough in this case to cover the screenplay’s issues.
Overall, The Inhabitant is an unfortunate mismatch of story and tone. While it succeeds for the most part as a haunting portrayal of how mental health issues affects the victim and their families, it’s curse-based horror approach does very little to accentuate the real-life terrors that come with hallucinations and does not feel scary or brutal enough to earn the ‘horror’ genre badge.
The Inhabitant is available on VOD from October 7th.
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