Directed by Albert Shin (Point Traverse, In Her Place) and written by Albert Shin and James Schultz (Milk and Honey), Disappearance at Clifton Hill is a whodunnit, set in the city of Niagara Falls. The main character is Abby (Tuppence Middleton – Sense8, The Imitation Game), who has returned to the town where she grew up to hear the reading of her mother’s will.
Afterwards, while going through old files at the motel her mother used to own, the Rainbow Inn, she comes across old photographs that trigger a memory in her from when she was a child, when she saw a one-eyed boy being grabbed and bundled into the back of a car. This sends her down the rabbit hole of trying to find out what truly happened that day and if the boy is still alive, embroiling her in accusations of conspiracy, child abuse, magic and murder.
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As well as Abby our other main characters are local podcaster, history buff and suspected paranoid Walter Bell, played by the always amazing David Cronenberg (The Fly, Nightbreed), Abby’s Sister Laure (Hannah Gross – Joker, Unless) who has a distinctly strained relationship with her sibling, and local real-estate tycoon and sleazy bigwig Charles Lake III (Eric Johnson – Rookie Blue, The Knick) who is interested in purchasing the motel and doesn’t appreciate Abby going prodding around in his business.
This is a story all about unreliable narrators and the tenuous idea of truth. Nobody in this film is without an agenda, everyone has their own take on things and when it comes to Abby and Walter, neither of them can be trusted at all. The ease with which Abby lies to the people she meets, from strangers to family, casts doubt on everything she’s showing the viewer, while Walter is established to be a conspiracy theorist, seeing connections and plots everywhere he turns. At another point in the film, two characters outright confess to their nefarious deeds. Twice. The problem there is that one confession is the truth, the other is a lie, and it’s up to Abby (and the viewer) to decide which is which.
The problem, though? This film is just kind of dull. Washed out, grey, and lifeless, which is an especially egregious sin in a city that’s supposed to be like a Canadian Las Vegas. Not only do we get no real feel for the place, there are precious few moments of real tension or urgency. Perhaps in part because the events Abby is investigating happened 25 years ago, but still. You need to make your audience care. The best example of this is right at the beginning of the movie. When young Abby (played by the excellent Mikayla Radan) sees the kidnapping, her response is silent horror. She doesn’t say a word, it’s all in her eyes and her expression, helped along by a wonderfully discordant score, assuring the audience that this is something her character is going to carry with her for the rest of her life.
The rest of the film, sadly, never reaches this peak again. That’s not to say it’s bad, far from it. The performances are uniformly brilliant, from the condescension of Officer Singh to the arrogance of the Magnificent Moulins, and the dialogue sounds like actual conversations real people might have. It’s a little sad that I need to flag that up as a positive but too many films in this sort of thriller genre sound like they’ve been written by people who have never interacted with actual real live human beings.
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The soundtrack, from Alexander Sowinski and Leland Whitty, is an interesting listen, full of harsh electronic snarls and squeals, ominous synths and distorted strings. It really works within the movie and makes for a good listen on its own for anyone who fancies something a bit out there.
Disappearance at Clifton Hill is one of those movies that’s just fine. It’s not bad enough for a rant, not great enough to gush about. Everything is just competent, pedestrian, average. But it does have David Croneberg as a scuba-diving, podcast-making, secret-snooping conspiracy nut and it’s worth seeing just for him.
Disappearance at Clifton Hill is out on Digital Download from 20th July and DVD on 3rd August.