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December 2009

Walled In

cast: Mischa Barton, Cameron Bright, Deborah Kara Unger, and Noam Jenkins

director: Gilles Paquet-Brenner

88 minutes (18) 2009
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Momentum DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont

the building of Walled In

weird decor, Walled In

Walled In splatter

Walled In

This film offers us something of an interesting critical challenge. Indeed, a glance at the creative DNA of this slow-burning horror/ thriller reveals three sources of potential: firstly, it is the first English-language feature by Gilles Paquet-Brenner, a director who seduced film festival audiences back in 2001 with Les Jolies Choses, the story of a descent into depravity starring Marion Cotillard. Secondly, it is adapted from Les Emmures (1990), a best-selling novel by Serge Brussolo, one of the pillars of the Francophonic genre-writing scene. Thirdly, it is a film that is all about the influence of architecture upon the human mind.

Taken together and properly exploited, these elements should have resulted in the kind of tightly plotted psychological thriller that rapidly attracts a cult following even if it does manage to evade a cinematic release. Sadly, Walled In is not that kind of film. Instead it is a dull and predictable affair which, despite a short running time, still manages to feel padded out and overly long. This begs the question: where did it all go wrong?

Sam Walczak (Mischa Barton) is from a family of demolition experts. Successful enough to be wealthy, the family are nonetheless true to their working-class roots. As the first Walczak to graduate from university, Sam feels a certain degree of remoteness from her family, not least because she studied architecture and engineering at university and so has more of an interest in how buildings are put together than she does in how best to take them apart. Upon graduation, Sam's father offers her a choice: she can either indulge her interest in architecture by going on a lavish tour of Europe with her boyfriend, or she can join the family firm as a structural engineer. Sam decides to join the firm but it turns out that her first job will speak just as much to her love of architecture as it does to her professional ambitions. In fact, it actively pits them against each other.

The job is to scout out a block of flats and write up a report detailing the ideal means of demolition. However, when Sam arrives at the building, she finds not a generic block of flats but a work of art designed by an elusive genius of an architect. The building presents itself as a blend of 1960s modernist brutalism and 1920s art deco. A vision of clean geometrical lines and classical pillars rendered in rough concrete and set amidst desolate and wind-swept marshlands. The building is also inhabited by a number of strangely dysfunctional people with chequered pasts, all of whom were given their flats by the architect himself while he was living there.

As Sam begins her investigations, she soon realises that the building's blueprints are entirely misleading. Rooms are the wrong size, doors lead to bricked up walls and corridors are dozens of feet shorter than they should be. Intrigued, Sam begins to look into the history of the building and discovers a grim history of murder whereby people were found to have been buried in the walls of the building. Slowly, Sam begins to wheedle the truth out of the building's remaining residents including architectural obsessive Jimmy (Cameron Bright), and his icy mother Mary (Deborah Kara Unger). Uncovering the architect's former library and a warren of secret passages allowing the inhabitants of the flats to be secretly observed, Sam works out the secret of the building and the fate of the architect who built it.

Walled In is a film that undeniably looks the part. Mischa Barton is wonderfully grubby and fragile as Sam, while Deborah Kara Unger is positively chilling as Jimmy's mother. Also incredibly impressive is Paquet-Brenner's rendering of the building itself. A combination of well-constructed sets and flawless CGI, it is easy to see why such a building would inspire the combination of obsessive fascination and terrified repugnance that underlies the entire plot. Particularly impressive is the griminess of the building's hidden spaces. Modernism is a remarkably clean and uncluttered style and to see it befouled by decades-worth of organic filth speaks of a secretly expanding and all-devouring moral cancer at the heart of the building. The art direction of Walled In is nothing short of superb, and Sara McCudden and Bertrand Seitz deserve to be praised for creating a truly memorable piece of fictional architecture. Sadly, the rest of the film simply does not live up to the high standards set by the art department.

The central problem with Walled In is its complete lack of dramatic energy. If you were to look at a storyboard of the film, you would see that it is filled with the kinds of scenes that you might feel entitled to expect from a half-decent horror film or thriller. There are scenes to make the audience jump in which the main character is attacked in the dark by a mysterious figure. There are talky character-development scenes in which the audience grow attached to the central character, thereby heightening the feelings of tension that come when that character is placed in danger. There are even scenes that offer up the kind of world-changing grand reveal that drags the characters down into a hell of despair and madness. These are the kinds of scenes that make good horror, and yet here they systematically fail to generate anything even approaching an emotional reaction. Indeed, as I sat watching Walled In, I was aware of my finger being continuously drawn to the fast forward button. Simply stated, Walled In is a dull film.

The reason for this lack of dramatic energy is partly a technical one. While Paquet-Brenner clearly knows how to block and light a scene for atmosphere, he struggles with such basic technical challenges as filling a scene with a sense of tension. Far too often he takes us from "everything's okay" to "Oh God! There's an axe swinging at my head!" with no space in between the two extremes. Cinematic tension flows from a sense of unsatisfied expectation. Audiences experience that tension because while they may know that something is going to happen, they do not know when. In one of the DVD extras of the 'masters of cinema' edition of Georges Franju's Eyes Without A Face (1960), the director explains how, if you show a shot of a parking lot but wait a few seconds for the car to drive in, you have created a sense of tension. The audience expects the car to arrive and when it does not they experience anxiety. Technically, effective horror and thriller directors understand that audiences can be kept in a state of visceral tension by denying them the satisfaction of their expectations and that this visceral tension is at the heart of what makes a good thriller or horror film. By having his acts of violence come almost out of nowhere, Paquet-Brenner is effectively ensuring that the violence in Walled In exists purely as a series of plot points to be engaged with cerebrally and not as a procession of set-pieces to be experienced viscerally.

Aside from technical problems, Walled In also suffers from certain narrative difficulties. The main source of these difficulties seems to be a script that is forever spoiling itself. Indeed, Brussolo's story is set up as a traditional horror/ mystery narrative in which the characters slowly learn the nature of the world. This narrative pops up throughout the horror canon including the works of H.P. Lovecraft and Nigel Kneale. In order to function, this narrative relies upon the carefully orchestrated drip-feeding of information to the audience. The more the world is revealed, the more powerful its image becomes. However, the script by Rodolphe Tassot, Olivier Volpi, Sylvain White and Paquet-Brenner systematically fails to drip-feed the information in an effective manner.

For example, the film opens with a sequence in which a little girl wakes up in a concrete box only for the box to start filling with concrete as she screams to be let out. It is an effectively claustrophobic piece of cinematography but it also spoils the revelation that a) people were walled into the building, and b) the architect was aware of this. This means that when Sam learns that these things had been going on, the revelation carries no emotional impact whatsoever. Similarly, one of the first things that Jimmy says to Sam is that the architect is still alive. This means that when the architect actually turns up, it is a real surprise for Sam but not for the audience. Again, the emotional force of the revelations are effectively spoiled. Revelations that should be made to the audience in a dramatic fashion are allowed to sneak out in casual conversation.

Combine these two problematic areas and what you have is a film that is packed with fascinating ideas but which presents them in a way that makes them appear completely uninteresting. So much more could have been made not only of the narrative's exploration of the mysterious building but also of the conflicts between and within the characters. Why did the architect invite people to live in his building? Was it because he wanted to observe them? Did any of the architect's other buildings rely on human sacrifice? Was the mother's protection of her demented son based upon sexual jealousy? Why did the architect surrender his will to the boy? If Brusselo's original novel comes close to answering these questions then I imagine it would make a wonderful read but Gilles Paquet-Brenner's adaptation of the novel is a huge and tragic missed opportunity.

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