review by AARON ALLEN
Directed by Tricia Lee
Written by Corey Brown and Tricia Lee
Starring: Chelsea Jenish, Sofia Banzhaf, Robert Nolan, and Jen Pogue
Silence is a virtue.
Silence is golden.
Tell that to any women or political, racial, and religious minority who has had their personalities muffled and their views forcibly silenced. When the overwhelming message you receive from society is to "sit down and shut up," and physical or sexual violence is held over your head should you fail to comply, silence takes on a whole new dimension. Silence is no virtue. When silence is your only way to survive, then silence becomes in its own way a kind of living death.
The social politics of silence crash headlong into the horror genre in Silent Retreat, the new Canadian film that's part Stepford Wives and part creature feature. Helmed by Canadian director Tricia Lee, Silent Retreat had its world premiere on October 20th at Toronto After Dark 2013.
Silent Retreat stars fresh-faced newcomer Chelsea Jenish as Janey, an orphaned young woman with a troubled past who, as an alternative to prison, is sent to a rehabilitation camp for young girls. The doctor overseeing this shady operation (Robert Nolan) enforces a very strict policy: absolutely no speaking or noise-making whatsoever. No personal items. No direct eye contact with the camp administrators. What looks on the outside to be a rehabilitation camp quickly shows itself to be something far more sinister: a misogynistic social program to turn women and young girls into submissive, obedient, wives. Failure to comply, however, is punished not at the hands of the administrators but by the tooth and claw of a dangerous creature that stalks the dense, dark woods.
Silent Treatment's smashup of genre elements result is an interesting if somewhat occasionally rough-around-the-edges psycho-horror drama with a splash of creature feature moments and a pinch of gender politics for flavor. That might sound like one crazy stew, but Silent Treatment somehow manages to distinguish itself in large part due to Robert Nolan's chilling performance and the film's gory monster moments, which the film plays close to the chest until the final bloody act when the doctor's camp for wayward youth becomes the new camp blood (minus that famous freak in the hockey mask).
Befitting its premise, Silent Retreat is a quiet little movie with a modest budget. Although the characters are hard to get invested in at the onset of the story because we know so little about them (due to the fact they are forbidden to speak), Silent Retreat finally picks up in scares, gore, and emotional payoff by the end. In particular, Sofia Banzhaf becomes an emotional touchstone as Janey's fellow prisoner Alexis. She emerges as a silent background character and becomes a powerful and sympathetic victim of society's intolerance and prejudice. She plays off against Janey nicely, helping to draw out Janey's own tragic past in one very gripping dramatic monologue. It just takes a little too long for the audience to connect with these characters, resulting in a first act that feels a little too cold.
Stick with Silent Retreat, though. It's perfectly enjoyable as a small, indie horror thriller. Behind the blood and the monsters, there are very important social themes there for those who want to read them. These themes -- relating mostly to the mechanisms of patriarchy and the fury that erupts when unnatural domestication and confinement is forced on powerful natural forces -- serve rather than overpower the story. Silent Retreat's gender politics thankfully never turn the movie into a mouthpiece for political proselytizing. Silent Retreat is an indie horror film with a social conscience, yes, but its goal first and foremost is to creep you out. Thanks to a spooky setting, a talented cast, a unique premise, and an intriguing monster, Silent Retreat does just that.
Don't give Silent Retreat the silent treatment. Fans of quieter psychological horror drama as well as blood-soaked monster movies should seek out Silent Retreat on the festival circuit and eventual release. Stay up-to-date on the Silent Retreat Facebook page.
For more from director Tricia Lee, the Canadian Premiere of her other horror feature CLEAN BREAK will screen at the Blood in the Snow Canadian Film Festival in Toronto: Saturday, November 30 @ 9:30 pm. Buy tickets.