Latched (2017) REVIEW
A remarkable horror short with a mesmerizing score.
Debuting this week at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, Latched hopes to make an impression on the well populated independent horror genre. In my opinion, it succeeds. I can only promise that this article will be spoiler free up until the end of the next sentence, so let me say this:
Latched is a worthwhile short film, and I hope you watch it.
With that out of the way, let’s talk about Latched in depth. Again, I will reiterate, this review has spoilers.
Latched was produced under the auspices of Bokeh Collective and Ginger Cat Studios. Directors Rob Brunner and Justin Harding each got their start as television directors. Harding’s Demo Reel emphasizes his experience working on reality and documentary television. Brunner, likewise, has worked on The Amazing Race Canada, Wild Things with Dominic Monaghan and Top Chef Canada. The Bokeh Collective is their brain child- Brunner and Harding both listed as co-founders.
It’s interesting to see Brunner and Harding depart from their television roots and branch out into horror shorts. The Bokeh Collective has already made noteworthy inroads with its 2016 short film, Kookie. The film, as we’ll see, has several important points of overlap with Bokeh’s 2017 short film, Latched. Since its release, Kookie has received a slew of awards from various Canadian and American film festivals such as the Canadian Feedback Festival, Toronto After Dark Film Festival, The Los Angeles Fear and Fantasy Film Festival, The Atlanta Horror Film Festival, etc. Thus, Latched follows, hot on the heels of Kookie’s well earned success.
Before we continue, a short synopsis of the film:
A single mother drives out with her young son to a shore house outside of the city. Helmer’s character recently landed a life changing choreography gig and she feels as though the locale better facilitates her creative endeavors. Her neighbor comes over to check on her and play with her son, Bowen. The neighbor proves to be quirky and mysterious. What follows is a beautifully shot montage sequence wherein Helmer’s character rehearses in the woods. During this montage, we are introduced to the monster of this film- a ghastly fairy whom Helmer’s character discovers and later revives inadvertently via spilling her breast milk on it. Yep, you read that right; we’ll get into that later, though. Initially, the creature is a dead, dried up husk. The neighbor inspects the corpse and deems it to be a bat. The husk is thrown away without a second thought- that is, until a bag of breastmilk gets knocked over and spills into the trash can. The fairy reawakens and begins to stalk the mother for her milk. The fairy begins to steal the milk from Bowen and from the fridge. One night, the fairy wakes them up in the middle of the night; having broken into the house. The mother takes up her son and runs for the dock outside. The fairy, however, manages to whisk Bowen away into the dark woods. The mother manages to rescue Bowen but is, in turn, backed into a corner. The strange, nosy neighbor appears –having heard the screaming- and shoots at the fairy, scaring it off briefly before being killed. At long last, the mother tricks the fairy by undoing her blouse and beckoning the fairy to come over to her and breastfeed. It does so and while it’s feeding, she drives a spike into the fairy’s skull, killing it.
Latched headlines with Alana Helmer; here, she plays the role of an enthusiastic professional dancer and single mother. Her son, a toddler, is played by Bowen Harding. Peter Higginson portrays a nosy and mysterious old man who lives in the woods nearby. Finally, production designer Jarrett Siddall got a chance to play the ghastly fairy that serves as the film’s antagonist.
Alana Helmer’s performance as the mom is wonderfully heartfelt. Throughout the film, during her interactions with Bowen, Alana adds subtle flourishes that serve as devices to endear her to the audience. The gentle chagrin she exudes when her nosy neighbor announces that he’s coming over or when that same neighbor mentions her ex-husband. The playful concern she has for Bowen seems genuine and sincere without being so heavy as to seem sanitized. When the terror of the plot begins to accelerate, her performance is suitably panicked but Helmer nonetheless is able to sell this feeling that her reluctance is dispelled by her character’s concern for her son. In moments of action, thus, Alana comes across as satisfyingly confident.
Equally, Peter Higginson’s performance as the nosy old neighborhood was a treat. Higginson’s character kinda fulfills the time tested horror trope of “that guy who’s kind of creepy but maybe he’s ok?” The aforementioned nosiness of this character is ramped up when we see him mysterious watching Alana’s character while she’s practicing her dancing routine in the woods. Higginson’s performance struck me as particularly kooky while being simultaneously overbearing in a fittingly uncomfortable way. The chemistry between Higginson’s character and Helmer’s adds a great deal of mystery to Latched overall. Finally, let me just say that Higginson has some of the most memorable lines in the film. One of my fondest memories of this film is his character pinching little Bowen’s cheek and exclaiming out loud: “Look at that fat little burrito face!”
Latched manages to get quite a bit done in its mere 17 minutes of runtime. This is largely due to its mastery of motif and thematic elements.
At this point, I’d like to explore some of the motifs and themes of the film and explain what I feel like these elements add to Latched overall.
Obviously, one of the biggest motifs in the film is that of breasts and breast milk. This motif is even referenced in the title of the short film; Latched. In a weird way, the imagery of breasts throughout the film is used to compound the motivations of the various characters. They’re an object of desire both for the neighbor (This is, at least, heavily implied) as well as for the fairy. Breasts are a means by which the mother character provides for her son, Bowen. This maternal imagery is buttressed by the importance of water in the film. The characters arrive and eventually escape by boat. Finally, it seems crucial to note that the breasts themselves are the means by which the mother ultimately defeats the fairy. The milk itself adds a lot of discomfort to the film. The scene where the breast milk pours onto the fairy corpse in the trash can jumps to mind; it’s really weird and super unsettling even without the context of the rest of the film.
The woods are also an interesting motif throughout the film. In the beginning of Latched they are a source of whimsy and beauty. Initially, the woods are presented to us via these beautiful shots of Helmer’s character practicing her choreography; admidst these unbelievably vivid red and orange vistas. Bowen plays in the leaves without a care in the world. After the “spook” is revealed, so to speak, the woods suddenly are portrayed drastically differently. The potential they once seemed to have is subverted by the danger they’ve been proven to contain. This motif is basically a cliché in the horror genre, but the cliché, in this case, serves to establish the film quickly- a top priority for a short film such as this. One cannot overstate the importance of good visual shorthand in a 17 minute film such as this; Clichés imply. What is implied need not be said or shown.
The dual theme of Motherhood and Childhood is obviously a huge part of what drives this film forward. Throughout the film, Helmer’s character is shown to be acting with Bowen’s interest in mind. Her career and her needs are just as pressing, however, and we see her doing her best to integrate and compromise these interests. For example, the mother takes her son with her while she rehearses her choreography in the woods. We don’t really see the mother struggling with these dueling pressures, in fact, they seem to bring her some degree of purpose and comfort. It was refreshing to see such an affirmative and uplifting portrayal of single parenthood in Latched.
The subversion of whimsy is a huge part of what drives the plot of Latched. I alluded to this a few paragraphs earlier in my discussion of the woods. The early shots of Helmer’s character practicing in the woods can really only be described as whimsical. This sense of whimsy is compounded by the excellent musical score done by Vivien Villani. The whimsy is dispelled, as I said, when the spook is revealed. Worse than dispelled, really, the whimsy is subverted and twisted into something nasty and scary. Of course, the subversion of innocence is a common cliché in horror films- which isn’t a bad thing, as I said. However, this case is fairly unique because of the choice of monster. In contemporary society we are liable to see fairies as cute, benevolent creatures. This is by and large an instrument of cultural presentism. Throughout western history, especially during the medieval period, those who believed in fairies generally saw them as either as demonic, illusionary or – at best – ambivalent beings. Scholar Darren Oldridge notes the following about medieval peoples in England:
“In the case of fairies, at least two broad approaches were available: they could be dismissed as delusions or idle tales, or reinterpreted as demons”
With that in mind, Latched seems to me a return of what might be called the “classical” fairy. Here, we can absolutely see one of the greatest strengths of the horror genre in its full glory- horror has the capacity to unsanitize established cultural symbolism. In a culture such as ours, which seems so eager to play down dirty and unsettling realities and portrayals, this seems absolutely vital. That’s enough soapboxing from me, let’s talk about shot composition.
The different shots and scene composition are huge contributors to both the sense of whimsy and suspense that Latched has. While Bowen’s mom practices her dancing, we’re treated to lingering shots of Bowen following her faithfully. The camera takes its time to follow him around, close to the ground. We pick up on pieces of grass and twigs sticking up through the leaves. The choreography of Helmer’s character is framed beautifully amongst the colorful vistas I mentioned before, but the still, lifeless trunks of the branches of the autumn trees contrast with the movement of the choreography. When the horror picks up, there is a fantastic scene wherein Helmer’s character slowly begins to realize something is in the house with her. She reaches for a flashlight, initially seeing nothing and turning the flashlight off… she decides to look again after seeing something moving in the darkness. This is the shot just before she turns on the flashlight for the second time:
This shot is so well done that it might as well make the entire film. It lingers and we’re allowed to have time with it. Even now, when I look at this still frame, I can fool myself into thinking that the shadow is somehow moving. In this regard, I think that the television experience of the directors really paid off. These shots are professionally done, it’s plain to see.
The professionalism of the film is also on full display in the sound reel and musical score. Director David Lynch once said: ‘Films are 50 percent visual and 50 percent sound. Sometimes sound even overplays the visual.” I agree with Lynch on this point. To me, it’s undeniable that Latched succeeds in large part because of excellent audio design.
Composer Vivien Villani has really outdone himself with the musical score for Latched. The film is shot through with the most fantastic string music. The soundtrack is extremely versatile and is able to produce a menagerie of different tones and feelings while sticking to a consistent musical aesthetic. Sound designer Luke McLean, just the same, has done a great job of making the sounds feel meaty and worthwhile.
Overall, Latched is a fantastic 17 minute short film. It’s competent and well done; but what would I change? Well, if I had to nitpick, the death of the nosy neighbor towards the end of the film seems a bit tacked on. The audience doesn’t have time to reflect on it or even really see it. Helmer’s character doesn’t seem much affected by it. This scene just seems out of place in a film that is otherwise extremely well shot and well paced. In the future, I would take some time to further indulge in the death of the character.
Latched is an excellent short film and a part of the developing body of work associated with the Bokeh Collective. Bokeh and the folks associated with the production of Latched are talented individuals and we ought to keep an eye on them.