THE APPEARANCE *** USA 2018 Dir: Kurt Knight. 111 mins
THE APPEARANCE tells the story of Mateho (Jake Stormoen) a church inquisitor who is dispatched to a monastery to investigate the murder/suicide of one of the brothers. His fellow monks believe that a young girl held in cells within the monastery is a witch and is responsible for the death and the ill-fortune descending on both the order and the surrounding village. Only Mateho, a man of science, and his forensic investigation stands between the girl and the pyre. But is there a deeper evil at work within the order?
Medieval settings aren’t always the easiest thing for filmmakers to pull off, and director Kurt Knight (We All Fall Down, Zombie Hunter) does a fine job establishing the setting. Unfortunately, some of the settings are a touch too sterile and look, well, like sets. In terms of historical accuracy, whilst serviceable, this is no THE WITCH (2015). Other than historical accuracy, there are other elements with which one can compare THE APPEARANCE to THE WITCH. Both movies attempt to lead the audience to question if the protagonists of the film are the victims of a supernatural menace, or if there is perhaps a more rational explanation.
Both films somewhat spoil this element by overtly showing us a supernatural entity early in the film. This was one of the elements that disappointed me with THE WITCH an otherwise excellent film, and it is even more off-putting in THE APPEARANCE. This is because the latter doesn’t establish a building and oppressive tension as well as the former did, meaning the overt revelation of a ‘scary monster’ gurning behind our protagonist destroys the ambiguity of a possible rational explanation.
That isn’t to say that THE APPEARANCE is without effective scares. Most of these revolve around the young girl held prisoner by the monastery. One scene in which the girl is ‘tested’ by the inquisitor with tragic results is chilling and tense and has a masterful pay-off later in the film. It’s a real shame that the director couldn’t include a few more scenes of this kind of horror, rather than resorting to loud noises, jump scares and blood to scare the audience. Less is more, and when THE APPEARANCE does less, it delivers. For instance, later in the film when one of the monks is confronted by the film’s supernatural menace, I found myself praying that the director knows enough not to explicitly show us the confrontation in detail, which is, happily, the case.
Actress Baylee Self is excellent as Isabel, the girl accused as witchcraft, her malevolent grin is so effective it almost has its own screen presence. Unfortunately, again this element suffers from a lack of ambiguity. We never really question if Isabel could in fact be innocent of the accusation levelled against her. I felt as if it is an aspect the film should have played to much more considering just how many innocent girls and women were put to death as a result of accusations of witchcraft.
Unfortunately, some of the other performances leave much to be desired. The lead Jake Stormoen is fine, but somewhat bland. Filmmakers need to learn, if they are going to give us a ‘tortured’ lead character, they need to work a little harder than to just show us that they suffer from nightmares. I found the portrayal of some of the monks, in particular the menacing Abbott (Michael Flynn), so heavy handed they wouldn’t seem too out of place in either a Monty Python sketch or an episode of Father Ted.
The idea of a man of science encountering the possibility of the supernatural is an intriguing one, in particular here in a medieval setting when a forensic approach would have been very against the norm. Like most films and books in which this is brought into play, of course, it is the man of science who must adapt his beliefs. Just once I’d love to see a movie in which this trend is reversed and it is the supernatural explanation that is overturned. I guess I’ll have to settle for episodes of Scooby-Doo cartoons for now.
All in all, THE APPEARANCE is a fine slow-burn horror with some extremely interesting themes and ideas which you will likely be left wishing were expanded on more. There’s a good film in the making here but it’s somewhat lacking in the execution.
Review by Rob Lea