No matter the genre, the most compelling stories are the ones which tap into something primal in the audience. Fear, delight, rage, and joy are ingrained in us as a means of survival in an uncontrollable cosmos. A good writer taps into the primal and a good director brings it to life on the screen. Writer/director Mitch McLeod does both in his third feature film Silhouette, a tale in which grief gives way to untenable horror.
After the death of their daughter, Sarah (Savannah Solsbery), Jack (Tom Zembrod) decides to move his wife, Amanda (April Hartman), to a new home in order to attempt a fresh start. Already Sullen and withdrawn, the distraught Amanda finds her trauma only increases as their home seems to contain a malicious spirit. Targeting only Amanda, the spirit uses Sarah as bait to pull Amanda further and further away from reality until its poisonous will is done.
Given the nature of art, a comparison from one piece to another is typically a given. Did you like X? Then give Y a try! It’s useful in helping audiences get a sense of something before experiencing it themselves, but it can also set expectations too rigidly within the framework of the other thing and not the thing before you. All of this is to say that there’s been some comparisons to Ari Aster’s Hereditary, a beautifully made film about grief which takes on a supernatural edge the further into the film you go. This is both an accurate comparison and not. Both films do feature female leads trying to exist in a world post-trauma and struggling. Both films also utilize several tropes from the horror genre as a means of weaponizing the real fears and pain the characters are experiencing. Beyond that, both films are entirely distinct from each other and it’s best to keep them that way in your mind. By doing so, you, the audience, are free to truly experience the growing dread McLeod crafts throughout Silhouette, a dread that leads to a conclusion which embraces the horror inherent within the drama of the situation over the horror genre itself, making it all the more evocative.
In the whole of Silhouette there are three distinct standouts: the narrative structure, the direction, and April Hartman’s performance. McLeod absolutely understands that grounding the horror in reality is paramount to success. He achieves this through the layering of concepts, images, and ideas. The film opens on Amanda clearly in distress without set-up or explanation, lingering long enough for the audience to put their own ideas of what’s happened or what will happen onto the screen before transitioning to another place with a different woman, listed only as The Woman (Kim Foster). Again, no explanation, no detail, the audience just observes as she experiences her own unexplained trauma before jumping to the first true introduction of Amanda. The connection is expressly important yet is left a mystery until the final act. To McLeod’s credit, it’s an aspect which is largely forgotten due to the shift onto Amanda and that merely amplifies the impact of the revelation. Unlike the aforementioned Hereditary, whose final moments were received as overkill to some in the way it pointedly connects dots, McLeod leaves enough space for varied interpretations. Building off of this are some brilliantly designed shots which not only enhance the audience’s discomfort but brilliantly place the audience within the psychological space of the characters. In one scene, Amanda wakes in the night and walks through the new house. As she sits up in bed and turns toward the door, the camera shifts from a hard focus on her and the door fuzzy, to a hard focus on the knob which holds until Amanda blocks the view. As she leaves the room, the camera holds its position to the point where Amanda’s form is so completely engulfed by the dark of night that the audience only finds her again when she briefly appears under a lamplight as she turns to another room. The tension in the sequence, especially coming off the opening, makes full use of the new environment, strange noise trope and the controlled direction just pounds that fear into the audience.
McLeod’s script appears, in summary, as exceptionally thin, yet, in execution, is significantly more full. Bringing it all to life is Hartman in a performance that compels the audience to go down the rabbit hole of insanity with her. Her physical affectation may come from the exceptional work from Mandy Marie Ocha, who handles hair and makeup for Silhouette, highlighting the corporeal degradation the loss of Sarah inflicts upon Amanda, however the psychological representation is all Hartman. Everything about her performance is wrought with pain. Glances, physical movements, and even dialogue make Amanda’s journey an entirely sympathetic one. As the film is about guilt, Hartman conveys the line of self-punishment and absolution-seeking that anyone in the character’s position would desire. Zembrod holds his own against Hartman, even as her performance entirely dwarfs his, sucking the air out of any interaction the characters engage in.
There’re two aspects which detract from the greater success of Silhouette: a shift in focus to Jack and an accompanying supportive performance. Zembrod does a great job in conveying the complexity of Jack at every stage of the film. However, in order to add necessary color so that the ending of Silhouette hits appropriately, a separation from Amanda is required to ensure Jack’s perspective is laid out. However, making this shift puts a brake on the rising momentum powering the whole film which emanates from Amanda. Silhouette is her story and, though Jack’s POV gives the audience his perspective on why he’s staying with Amanda despite evidence of an unhappy marriage, Jack is more of a supportive player in the film than one of the leads. What he adds in this segment is just as easily removed and left up to inference, a particular tool in McLeod’s kit which works increasingly well in other areas of the film. Perhaps what aids in creating the sensation of drudgery is an unfortunate performance from Jessica Dawn Willis as Dawn, a neighbor for whom Jack develops a fascination. As mentioned, the interaction between the characters does help to cement certain notions about Jack and Amanda’s marriage, as well as Jack’s complex feelings for his wife, however, there’s something a little off about Willis’ performance, as though she’s not reacting based off Zembrod’s performance and is entirely in her head. The actors have good chemistry and neither performance is wooden by any stretch, but it’s as if Willis is working a different scene than Zembrod, resulting in an unexpected dissonance.
Silhouette is less of an underdog than audiences might think at first. McLeod’s film may be indie, supported by an IndieGoGo fund, and made for $25K, but its debut at the Bare Bones International Music and Film Festival earned it a Best Actress award for Hartman, Best Horror Feature, and Best of Fest and it doesn’t look ready to stop there. Packing so many surprises under the hood, it’s no wonder that Silhouette makes an impression. Building off the primal, McLeod bends reality around this grieving couple until the audience isn’t sure what’s real or what’s imagined. Truly, once Silhouette gets its hooks on you, it won’t let go.
Currently on the festival circuit. Head to Absentia Pictures’ Facebook page for updated information.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.