It’s unlikely that Spencer Squire’s debut feature “Abandoned” will be keeping anybody up at night. At a time when the horror genre is going through a (mostly female-led) renaissance with films like “Raw,” “Censor,” “Saint Maud,” “Relic,” and “The Babadook,” “Abandoned” feels like the prosaic coup de grâce which has been threatening the jump-scare chillers for the last ten years. And that’s not because it’s especially bad or clumsy in the way, say, “The Nun” or the recent “Candyman” remake was. Rather because all its tricks are blandly on display here—the doors in desperate need of WD-40; the glacial specters at the window; the creepy, giggling child; the inevitable possession—as is their distinct lack of novel combinations.
The plot will no doubt sound familiar to horrorphiles. Sara (Emma Roberts), a teacher suffering from postnatal depression, moves into a large farmhouse with her husband, Alex (John Gallagher Jr.), and their infant son, Liam. The house seems primed for a young family looking to build a life in the country; it even has a barn for the various buckets and bolt guns necessary for Alex’s veterinary practice. During the viewing, Sara asks why the house has been on the market for so long. The wheedling estate agent’s smiley face falls as she’s forced to tell them about the “incident” that occurred there forty years ago—a “suicide,” she informs them, before correcting herself, “well, a double homicide.” Not opposed to a little haunting, but still with very little apparent enthusiasm, the couple agrees to take it. Alex duly puts down his signature and, in so doing, signs them up for a lot more than happy home-owning.
This is really the only gear shift in the movie. From that point on, the story unfolds in sporadic but inevitable revelations. While Alex starts working late, introducing himself to the surrounding farmers—one of whom is so vacant and predatory that he wouldn’t be out of place in the backwaters of “Deliverance”—Sara uncovers old photographs and police reports of the fateful incident, in which a girl named Anna killed her baby and then her father, or so the estate agent said; for as Sara discovers, the reports make no mention of the child. Days go by, and Sara’s personality starts to fracture: she ties her hair back with a ribbon once belonging to Anna; misplaces Liam’s toys and her creepy childhood music box, which, when opened (as it frequently is) starts a ballerina pirouetting to a sad lullaby; is pestered non-stop by swarms of flies during the day, the same flies seen resting on the cheek of the deceased Anna Solomon; and at night she’s kept awake by the voices and footfalls of children playing behind the wardrobe. Although somewhat derivative, this layering of spirit influences on top of mania on top of reality is played to great effect in the beginning, in part due to Roberts’ strange sleepwalker stupor, her acute loneliness, and her unconfessed dissatisfactions with the ways of traditional marriage, but also due to Michael Shannon’s performance as the peculiar neighbor, Chris, whose quiet yet tormented demeanor seems to hold the key to Anna’s case.
Each phantasmal element is eventually dialed up to 11, setting up a murderous, Jack Torrance-ish finale that sadly never comes. (The film’s actual ending—upbeat but reactionary—is sure to lose as many audiences as it wins over.) Instead, the film stays in its singular, elemental mode, cycling through the various noises and apparitions, only with more flickering lights (the usual ‘Why does nobody turn a damn light on around here?’ syndrome), more preternatural visits, and with an increasingly hyperactive string accompaniment. Which is all to say that it quickly exhausts its key ideas. And you can hear the warning shot during the first act when Squire tries to add to his delicate chamber piece a play-within-a-play involving Alex’s troubles euthanizing a litter of sick pigs; the parallels of this side story to the broader plot are so undisguised as to be uninteresting, and the turmoil and tension of his planning and then firing the bolt gun is subdued, to say the least.
For the most part, Squire stays faithful to his self-enforced rule of only using “non-gratuitous tropes of genre storytelling,” as he puts it in the film’s press statement. There aren’t any crosses turning upside down, no explicit exorcisms (although a psychiatrist visits Sara at one point), and no unnecessary blood spatter to vent the climactic tension. But like its chi-chi sibling, “mother!,” and its boring cousin, “Things Heard & Seen,” the primary effect of “Abandoned” is to remind you of the virtuosity and widespread under-appreciation of Robert Altman’s “Images.” There, not only do the three elements (marital strain; unbridled mania; lurking phantoms) coalesce into a thrillingly hypnotic point of view, they also morph and evolve (as opposed to just growing ever more intense) towards a truly satisfying—and deservedly bloody—end. Where “Abandoned” really works, it’s as a pastiche of Altman’s horrifying phantasmagoria. (This is also this same heady mix of ethereal horror that Kubrick remodeled some eight years later into the symphonic fever dream of the Overlook Hotel.)
Maybe two or three years ago, “Abandoned” could’ve passed into the psycho-horror canon relatively unnoticed. But now, with slick, high-concept B-pictures like Rose Glass’ “Saint Maud” opting for slowly-built dread over sheer hit-rate of scares, something as timid and procedural as “Abandoned” feels more and more anachronistic, like the last remnant of the “Paranormal Activity” age. Ultimately, neither Squire nor Roberts nor Gallagher Jr. really puts a foot wrong in this movie, but that’s chiefly because the whole thing is standing still. [C]