The opening night of Fantastic Fest 2015 brought with it one of the year’s most buzzed about new horror films. That would be ‘February’, the feature film debut of Osgood Perkins (son of the late ‘Psycho’ star Anthony Perkins). And it’s blend of arthouse indie and retro horror (replete with nerve-jangling score), will likely appeal to fans of “It Follows.”
The storyline takes place at a Catholic preschool over Christmas break. While the premises are largely vacated, two students are still waiting on their parents to pick them up, left in the care of a pair of nuns. One is Kat (“Mad Men’s” Kiernan Shipka), a insular awkward child convinced something horrible has happened to her folks. The other is Rose (Lucy Boynton), a Gothic beauty who fears she’s just become pregnant, and is delaying rejoining her family.
Rose soon becomes concerned that Kat is deeply disturbed, leading to many shots of darkened empty hallways and Shipka staring spooky eyed into he distance, as if she’s communicating with something in the shadows.
And a short distance away, we have Joan (“American Horror Story’s” Emma Roberts), a disheveled homeless young woman offered a ride by a kindly couple (James Remar and Lauren Holly) who are headed towards the aforementioned prep-school on a murky mission.
Perkins plays fast and loose with a non-linear narrative that ratchets up the tension, and hints at a supernatural evil that threatens all involved. All this is augmented by Perkin’s brother’s (Elvis) score, who creates extremely distressed sonics to buttress moments of terror.
But all the editing and musical jolts can’t fully overcome a plot that is ultimately too lofty to fully deliver: Perkins clearly wants to offer a subversive take on horror, and offers three strong female characters that buck the trend of slasher horror ditzes. But the narrative shifts are at times too uneven, and the twist ending, after so much prior turmoil and build, doesn’t quite drop your jaw to the floor. Likewise, the use of long awkward pauses while novel at first, can become frustrating later on.
Special credit must go to cinematographer Julie Kirkwood who’s use of darker than dark cinematography and drastic backlighting approximates hallucinatory eyestrain (seeing things in the dark that don’t exist) and creates luminous compositions that give “February” a luxurious look decrying its small budget.
In the end “February” gets by more on atmospherics and solid performances than a cohesive storyline or big reveal. But Perkins has made a unique and unnerving cinematic debut that honors his father’s horror legacy and tips a hat to 70’s classics like “The Exorcist” and “The Shining” in the process, even if he can’t match those heights. It’s destined for cult appeal. I’m very curious to see what he attempts next.