DISAPPEARANCE AT CLIFTON HILL Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Tony’s watching a magic trick.

If your entertainment diet is mostly mainstream pop culture, it can have the effect of eating mostly marshmallow with the occasional ice cream sundae – all sticky sweetness, cream and sprinkles. That, after all, is part of the mindset that leads Hollywood to be known as Tinseltown.

If that’s most of what your entertainment diet’s composed of, what you need occasionally is an off-kilter, nerve-grating, ‘What-the-hell-is-actually-happening?’ semi-horror movie of ever-shifting perceptions, just to sharpen up your senses and keep you right. Imagine off-kilter, nerve-grating, ‘What-the-hell-is-actually-happening?’ semi-horror movies of ever-shifting perceptions as roughage, as bran if you like, in your entertainment intake, there to ground you in the world of the dark, the dubious, the mysterious as all hell and the slipping out of certainty with every fifth breath that is probably a closer representation of what’s actually going on than any of your pop culture fast food.

Welcome to Disappearance At Clifton Hill. It’s about as roughage-heavy as you can take in any given day without doing yourself serious, twitchy, paranoiac damage.

The film, written by Albert Shin and James Schultz, deals with the life of Abby (Tuppence Middleton), who on a day out with her family as a child, encounters a boy who she then watches get pummelled and bundled into the back of a car, seemingly kidnapped with no other witnesses to the crime, in Clifton Hill, on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls.

Cutting quickly to Abby as a grown-up, we focus on the death of her mother and the subsequent impending sale of the family’s guest house to local big shot and probable wrong ’un Charlie Lake (Eric Johnson). Abby’s obsession with the events she witnessed as a girl have done much to alienate her from her sister Laure (Hannah Gross), and the two also find new sources of grievance over the plans to sell the family business to the latest in a long line of kingpin Lakes. Meanwhile, Abby, newly back in the area, niggles away at her earlier experiences, and begins to piece together what she thinks is a case. The boy she saw was the son of local mega-magicians, the Moulins (think Siegfried and Roy, but straight and even more Eurotrash), and he was reported to have committed suicide.

Abby gets on the case, and seems to find leads that prove it was more than that – some leading to a disturbing murder plot, some leading, perhaps even more disturbingly, to the demands and proclivities of Charles Lake II, father of current bed and breakfast buyer, Charlie. But in a movie which also includes legendary creepfest-director David Cronenberg in an on-screen role as a local historian, river-diving archivist, conspiracy theorist and podcaster, you can be fairly sure that nothing you think you know is necessarily what you really know. The more threads Abby pulls, the more complex the story of the kidnapping seems to become – is there something with which the Moulins’ assistant and tiger-trainer, Bev Mole can be charged? What exactly happened to her husband when – as some people believe – he wanted to report her to the police? What, in fact, actually happened to young Alex Moulin? Was what Abby thought she saw what she actually saw? Is her journalistic training leading her down false trails, and if so, have they been laid down for her, and by whom, or is she simply putting two and two together and making eight to escape the boredom and mediocrity of her life?

The whole tone of the movie is tinged with nerve-throbbing uncertainty – the colour palette is oddly murky, the music is like having your aural nerves played by something that’s half-bow, half-breadknife, Cronenberg’s cork and leather voice as Walter the historian, smoothing you through from one scene to another in some cases and pointing out how depressingly wrong Abby is in others, has the effect of lacing the movie with a shot and a half of vocal whiskey, keeping you off balance, always demanding you look deeper to some truth that may be there or may be absolutely conspiracy-mythical. Walter’s beef is with the generations of the Lake family – but is there anything real to their perceived iniquity? Abby focuses on the bizarre relationship of the Moulins – especially their relationship with the truth, and feels they’re the more likely suspects in the disappearance of their son, with possible aid from Bev and her husband. Even towards the end of the movie, after a handful of other revelations which we won’t pre-empt for you, when it looks as though either through justified hunches or dumb luck, Abby’s done something good, the film undercuts your certainties, making you confront what you think you know about coincidences, consequences, chains of logic and the relationship even Abby has to the truth.

While Tuppence Middleton invests you in the movie and in Abby’s character quite firmly enough to pull you along, you’re not far into the movie before you’re suspecting everyone of everything and trying to work out on which layer of the storytelling, if any, the truth actually lives. Again, Shin’s direction, the cinematography from Catherine Lutes, the almost-intrusive musical landscape created by Alex Sowinski and Leland Whitty, and some quality ‘wrong ’un’ performances from the likes of Marie-Josée Croze and Paulino Nunes as the Moulins and Elizabeth Saunders as Bev Mole all serve to wrong-foot you, drag you in, pull any number of rugs out from under you and leave you ultimately pinballing from supposed fact to supposed fact, uncertain of your own name or purpose in life, let alone the existence of any truly good or decent people in the world – or at least in the movie.

You’ll be quite ready for more bubblegum pop culture by the time you get to the end of Disappearance At Clifton Hill, but here’s the thing – the movie won’t actually let you go for quite some time once you’re done with it. It will keep coming back to you in the darkness behind your eyes, prodding you, reminding you of the questions with which it leaves you at the end about truth, honesty, paranoia, and a need to buy into storylines for the sheer diversion they bring from whatever your life actually is.

Disappearance At Clifton Hill is absolutely a disturbing movie, but it’s one that’s studded with moments that won’t leave you alone, not because they’re gratuitous or graphic – there’s perhaps one uncomfortable jump-scare in the whole thing – but because they’ll make you question everything you know, everything you think you know, and everything you need to believe in, while delivering a modern gumshoe mystery with a lead character who may or may not be either right or trustworthy about anything.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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