Don’t be fooled by this seemingly straightforward film. It is not what you think. Attend with caution and bring your campy sense of humor with you. For this may be a psychological thriller bordering on horror, but it will also amuse you and evoke some laughs to boot.
“Don’t turn on the lights when you go into the basement” is a necessity in every horror film. And be sure to plunge into your apartment in the dead of night while not closing the door or lighting even a tiny birthday candle. These are prerequisites for every horror film. Where would the scares come from without these Hollywood tricks that have been chilling audiences since the silent movies?
Director Neil Jordan, who made a name for himself with The Crying Game and for casting one of the first transgender actors in films (Jaye Davidson), is known for his unusual films. Writing the script with Ray Wright (who also conjured up the story), Jordan has come up with an amusing, scary, tension-filled spine chiller.
Chloe Grace Moretz (Francis) is a young college student who rooms with a fun classmate Erica (a 21st Century young party girl played with expertise by actress Maika Monroe). When coming home on the subway one day, Frances finds a purse apparently left by mistake by its owner. She finds some identification in the purse, and being a Good Samaritan, decides to return the purse to its owner. Big mistake.
You know things will get bad for Bambi-like Francis, a delectable fresh prey for the “je ne sais quoi” personality of Isabelle Huppert, who plays Greta, the deceptively charming “French” woman who “lost” the purse. “Come in for some tea,” says the spider to the fly. You know something is not right when she becomes overly familiar with the young girl and serenades her with some Liberace-like piano playing of Franz Lizt’s1850 composition “Liebestraum,” aka “Lover’s Dream.” Greta confesses she is a lonely widow and needs a friend. Will Francis be the one? She could fill in for Frances’ deceased mother. Ha!
This offer allows Jordan to let Huppert’s off-center character begin to stalk Francis wherever she goes. It gets creepy. Huppert is superb in her restrained and chilling performance, especially when she is trying to charm the girl into liking her. Francis, of course, freaks out.
But it’s not all bone-snapping chills, for the filming appears part tongue-in-cheek, part B movie noir, part stylish thriller. The viewer must, of course, have a sense of the ridiculous as well as an appreciation of the campiness of the situations. Don’t take everything at face value.
The horror buff will appreciate Huppert’s grasp of the off-center character she is playing. She’s just menacing enough to give you chills, but charming enough to trust her and drink her possibly fatally-laced tea. Her Gallic charms shine through her menace. And, having once been a nurse, she dispatches human irritations with poisonous syringes as though she’s injecting rum into a sponge cake. No wonder she’s a huge star in France.
Sure, there are plenty of clichés in the movie, plenty of familiar schticks. But they all seem to work in Jordan’s creepy take on such an irresistible and insistent woman you can’t ignore. But you already know what eventually happened to the fly after accepting the spider’s invitation.
(Released by Focus Features; rated “R” for some violence and disturbing images.)