Director: Osgood Perkins
Cast: Emma Roberts, Kiernan Shipka, Lauren Holly, James Remar, Lucy Boynton.
It seems the new trend in Horror Films has shifted from the dominant slasher genre to ‘atmospheric horror,’ a sub genre which relies mainly on odd camera angles, muted soundtrack and the implication of terrible things to come rather than delivering the outright punch of in your face grotesqueness. This has lead to some really bad, boring films that didn’t make a whole lot of sense (Babadook, I’m looking at you) as well as a few genuinely creepy films (Ti West’s The Innkeepers) though most of the new wave fits the first category more snugly. This brings me to the movie February, the directorial debut of actor Osgood Perkins (Legally Blonde, Star Trek). Perkins tries his hand at atmospheric horror in an effort to bring something new to the table and makes a genuine attempt to deliver a movie far more artistic than the average cineplex fare but does February succeed in creating the tension and horror the viewer has come to expect from a supernatural thriller or does it degenerate into the less watchable realm exemplified by the likes of Seventh Moon (2008)? Let’s find out.
The story begins on the eve of the equivalent of Spring Break at an all girls rural boarding school called the Bramford School. Kate (Kiernan Shipka) and Rose (Lucy Boynton) are forced to spend the break together at the school as neither of their parents arrive to pick them up; Kate fears her parents are dead, Rose has specifically mislead her parents as to the date of their break. Rose is a senior and resents having to ‘babysit’ the younger Kate and fills her head with all kinds of stories of Satanic worship among the Sisters of the school in order to get Kate off her back so she can meet up with a boy she likes. As the film progresses, Kate begins to act stranger and stranger, vomiting, using foul language and praying in the dark, dank basement. A few towns over, Joan (Emma Roberts) has left a hospital friendless and alone, no money to her name and scant possessions. She’s picked up by a well meaning, almost ministerial man (James Remar) and his wife (Lauren Holly) who are on their way to Bramford, seeing as they’re headed the same direction. It is here that the three girls’ stories begin to dovetail into one big tale that affects the lives of everyone involved in the Boynton School and it is also here that my plot summary ends as the less you know about the film the more enjoyment you have a chance at getting out of it as the three stories are told in a very fragmented fashion with some things happening at the beginning that takes quite a bit of the movie before it’s put into context. Plus, spoilers would abound.
The movie relies primarily on its atmosphere for the tension its building and on that level February succeeds in much the same manner as The Innkeepers (2011) in that even when nothing’s happening, the stellar camera-work, the choice of non-traditional shooting angles and absence of score in key scenes creates a definite eerie ambience. Perkins also leaves out some of the more cliché elements of modern horror films by eschewing the use of ‘jump scares,’ preferring to let the feeling of cold, loneliness and isolation deliver the feeling of anxiety and dread necessary to the suspense. I could not help but think of Suspiria (1977) or Lucky McKee’s The Woods (2006) while watching February as both those films also used the tactic of ambience over gore, though all three films have their moments of intense violence. Maybe it was just that it takes place in a girl’s school but that’s what stuck in my mind as well as The Last Winter (2006) as that focused more on the isolation and cold, much like February.
The three girls’ stories are intertwined in a very Pulp Fiction-esque manner where events that take place during Rose’s segment are seen from a slightly different angle when the story shifts to Kat’s perspective and again when revisited by Joan later on and for the most part, this story-telling device works real well. However, foreshadowing tends to work better when it’s subtle and only really clever people can figure out where you’re going with things. Too much foreshadowing makes many things very, very obvious to everyone and its here that February suffers its biggest blow in terms of the mood and mystery it’s trying to present. I happened to be on a headset with my pal Mike D and at the 45 minute mark (yes, I checked) I was able to lay out the entire rest of the film for him with a 95% success rate (yeah, I’m not afraid to admit I guessed something really clever that turned out to be a non-factor as it never happened but would have been inconsequential anyway) and that’s bad for a movie whose whole approach is to build atmosphere and mystery that builds to what is ostensibly supposed to be a rather shocking ending. When you give all the goods away ahead of time it doesn’t matter how effective you are at building a mood with your camera angles and combined storytelling approach; you’ve just given the audience the road map roughly half way through your film… and none of the explanations have happened yet! The other major flaw is in the delivery of the dialog. Kiernan Shipka often times mumbles her lines, making it tremendously difficult to pick up on the words even after rewinding several times and anyone who calls on the phone, despite the fact that they’re supposed to be muted, might as well sue the phone company because, again, they’re almost impossible to make out.
So what’s good? Well, overall, the whole movie. Despite the blatant giveaway of the entire mystery, the film is beautifully shot, excels at atmosphere and the sense of dread and is tremendously well acted. Even at the 45 minute mark, when I Mystery Incorporated the whole tale, I still admitted to my pal Mike that he blew it not attending the screening of February because I had liked what I had seen up to that point and having finished the flick I feel the same way now that it’s over. I feel that February, it’s flaws notwithstanding, is still better than 85% of what passes for modern horror films today and would not hesitate to recommend it at least on Blu Ray or DVD. It won’t be the best supernatural suspense film you’ve ever seen but it’s far from wretched and Osgood Perkins showed me enough that if he stays in genre I wouldn’t hesitate to see his next effort. Keep February in mind when it gets released to theaters, hopefully this winter (maybe February?), as it’s totally worth checking out. It may even change your mind a little on the potential of atmospheric horror.
Written by Tron Delapp