Forbidden desires. Restraint versus freedom. The ethical and immoral choices we make in our lives. All these themes and more are present in one of this year’s most intriguing, if not entirely groundbreaking, sci-fi-horror films, Elizabeth Harvest.
Newlyweds Elizabeth (Abbey Lee) and scientist Henry (Ciarán Hinds) arrive to his futuristic estate where an array of fancy clothes, even fancier dinners and where every want or need could possibly be met are lying in wait for our bride. However, something feels off to Elizabeth, and her suspicions are compounded further when Henry decrees that in this house of the future that Elizabeth has free reign except For one room that Henry forbids her from entering. Things aren’t helped with the dispassionate house staff of Claire (Carla Gugino) and Oliver (Matthew Beard) seemingly watching her from afar at any given moment. When Henry goes away on business, Elizabeth naturally investigates the room she’s been forbidden from entering. What she finds inside is both shocking and world-changing to her.
It’s fair to say that on paper the plot to Elizabeth Harvest is intriguing while not exactly awe-inspiring, and after watching it for 10 minutes or so you’d be remiss for thinking you’ve nailed the story and think you’re in for another predictable hour and 40 minutes. It’s pleasing to report that after a quite shocking moment early on, whatever you think you knew about this film is completely swept from under your feet.
Writer-director Sebastian Gutierrez has concocted a head-fuck of sci-fi with a splicing of horror that leads you one way then changes direction on a dime. Throughout Elizabeth Harvest’s runtime you’ll think you’ve pinned it down before it squirms away again challenging you to think again. The non-linear narrative adding further to its complicated charms. Not bad from the writer of Snakes On A Plane.
While unpredictability is a great asset for any film to posses, Elizabeth Harvest does carry moments where suspension of disbelief is certainly required. To delve into them here would be spoilers but one particular thread involving a cop (played amiably by Dylan Baker), who is a friend of Henry’s who visits the estate form time to time does raise questions of believability. Another problem is the overtly familiar feeling of having seen this before, most notably in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. While plot-wise very different, the setting, tone and power dynamic of scientist and subject are intrinsically linked to Garland’s head-twattery of AI and corruption from 2015. That’s not to say that both films can’t coexist, but you can’t help but feel Ex-Machina did it better.
Still, there’s one area that both films are both in sync for the good and that is with their small but terrific casts. Ciarán Hinds is great as the scientist Henry, who evokes pathos and horror in equal measure throughout. Carla Gugino proves yet again why she’s still one of the greatest actresses working today, starting off as a meek and somewhat cold character before evolving as the film plays out, showcasing fear and naivety and eliciting sympathy by the finale. Matthew Beard plays Oliver, the blind house staff member perfectly, as you’re never quite sure of his allegiances and why he chooses to remain in the house. The robotic-like quality to his speech and movement further adding to the disconnect and difficulty trusting of Oliver.
However, special mention belongs to the titular Elizabeth, Abbey Lee. A relative newcomer, the Aussie imbues Elizabeth with an almost child-like curiosity and wonder, which helps the moments of horror land all the more sickeningly. Towards the film’s final act, Lee is stretched further when the full realisation of Elizabeth’s situation and what Henry has been doing in his forbidden room come to call, and Lee handles it with aplomb. It is simply a very good performance.
Elizabeth Harvest is released in US cinemas August 10th.
Elizabeth Harvest isn’t going to blow you away, and while Ex Machina is always lurking in the shadows, it still has plenty going for it on its own. The superb cast sell the sci-fi well even when it loses moments of credibility. Put simply, this is a good bit of sci-fi-horror head-fuckery. Well worth a watch.