Matt Micucci dares to enter the House of Shadows (Controra), which screened at the 25th Galway Film Fleadh (9 – 14 July, 2013)
In her introduction of the screening of her film last night at the Galway Film Fleadh, director Rossella de Venuto made sure to specify that House of Shadows (Controra) was a paranormal thriller. This seemed like an appropriate clarification. House of Shadows in fact does not quite blend in with other modern horror films of this generation and anyone looking for cheap thrills will probably be disappointed.
House of Shadows tells the story of Megan (Fiona Glascott), an Irish woman who travels to Italy with her husband Leo (Pietro Ragusa) for the first time to settle the will of their uncle Domenico, a powerful Catholic priest with a reputation as miracle worker. The couple stay in Monsignor Domenico’s big house and shortly after their arrival Megan begins experiencing a series of mysterious hallucinations during the ‘controra’, the hottest time of the day. This leads her down a path of revelations of an unsolved mystery in Leo’s family.
It’s rare to see a paranormal thriller set during the day time, with most films of the kind preferring the eeriness of darkness to the vivacity of sunlight. Yet, as de Venuto clearly proves with her first impressing feature film, there is a lot of tension in the movement of light and of the shadows which light creates. This tension is captured very well by the different camera movements and techniques which she, along with cinematographer Ciarán Tanham, employs in a way which revisits the style of German expressionism with a modern twist. The element of the shadow in fact could even be considered a character in its own right. When Megan experiences her hallucinations it advances menacingly from background to foreground as if taking on close human characteristics. Similarly, when these hallucinations come to a halt, it is often the darkness of the shadow which re-introduces us to the real world. Furthermore, this element provides the film a chilling subtext; as mentioned in the film there is an old legend in some parts of Southern Italy which says that shadows can capture the soul of whoever is caught outside at the hottest time of the day when the sun is directly overhead.
The setting too is quite eerie. The village is mostly of old buildings and wallows in a state of graceful decadence. The house in which most of the action takes place particularly conceals a gripping and somewhat labyrinthine kind of suspense. It is a huge old building, beautiful but menacingly gothic, and has a reputation as a haunted house. When we are first introduced to it, we see that it is undergoing works of restoration. As hallucinations progress and the mystery unfolds, it becomes clearer that every decaying wall that is being knocked down could conceal a chilling secret.
Ambitiously, de Venuto also challenges the old cliché of poor quality cardboard acting, another element which often lowers the quality of a horror film. Fiona Glascott in particular delivers a magnetic performance and portrays her character’s strengths and weaknesses as well as her more or less involuntary alienation with great strength. It’s amazing how powerfully her expressions can reveal such a varied mix of emotions of confusion, terror, bewilderment but also stoic determination.
House of Shadows is also built around the contrasts between two cultures. It helps that Leo’s birthplace is a small village, inhabited by small minded and simple people who are still timorous not to believe in old legends and soon look upon Megan’s presence as an evil one, eventually going as far as calling her a witch. In turn, however, Megan also fails to adapt to the Italian ways by remaining distant and almost refuting the initial friendliness of Leo’s friends. On top of that, she just cannot adjust to the weather or the sun. When she finally agrees to go to the beach with Leo, she is overdressed and carries a sun umbrella.
Yet it is the way in which the film deals with Catholicism that is arguably the most daring aspect of the film, especially considering the fact that this is an Irish Italian co-production and the influence the Church played on the history of these two nations. While it is undeniable that De Venuto chooses to deal with this delicate theme in an unsympathetic light, she also uses it as a symbolism of human fragility and imperfection whilst never being totally one sided; there are two religious men in fact who do not come across as shady and scheming, one of them being the one sent to investigate on the beatification of Monsignor Domenico, who is also the closest thing Megan has to an ally throughout the movie.
What the film always lacks, however, is comic relief and occasionally a sense of urgency. Every now and again, the film’s pace comes to an abrupt halt and this ‘start stop’ structure is occasionally tiring and even frustrating. This stands in opposition to the filmmaker’s previous short film work which exhibited a wonderful visual style and original concepts but sometimes felt rushed in its length.
Yet, the assets in the film outnumber the liabilities. House of Shadows is intense and sophisticated, admirably experimental but also entertainingly creepy and mysterious. In many ways, it also feels like a stylish return of the Italian giallo. Taking into consideration the fact that this is de Venuto’s feature length debut, House of Shadows is quite impressive and while it may not please viewers seeking more lowbrow entertainment, it certainly offers fresh and intelligent ideas to a genre that often feels repetitious and lacking in creativity.