“An efficiently crafted piece of work shrouded in dread and frozen to last”
Every few years brings with it a new take on the vampire myth; so staked is this ancient story into cinema’s undying heart. With its isolated characters, moody rhythm and aversion to life beyond the security of shuttered windows, this tense chamber piece lends itself to a pandemic-stricken audience. The guarded, stripped-to-the-bone debut feature from Jennifer Sheridan couldn’t have come at a more fitting hour. Largely tied to a solitary, wintry location, it’s an efficiently crafted piece of work shrouded in dread and frozen to last. The British director has embraced the vampire curse with the emotional baggage that comes with any life-debilitating disease, meaning Rose: A Love Story puts its heart where its mouth is. Refreshingly underplayed, Sheridan’s modest tragedy brings fresh blood to an age-old story.
With immediate comparisons to the divisive It Comes at Night (2017), this small, restrained horror conjures an impressive sense of place; cold, alone, intensely paranoid, a life hidden within a wall of dead trees. The camera drops us in on an isolated cabin. A man trudges out, bearded, built to weather storms, and locks the door. This is Sam (Matt Stokoe), one-half of a troubled marriage. The home he has built is safeguarded with traps; tin cans line the perimeter as makeshift alarms, CDs twirl in the glint of sunlight (what could these be for?). Anybody that wanders too close is likely to snap their leg in one of the bear traps surrounding the cabin and the paths leading up to it. Sam trudges wordlessly through deep snow as we are left staring at his axe and wondering what’s hidden away inside his home.
It turns out, the thing locked inside a cabin is just Rose (Sophie Rundle). Pale-skinned, prone to fatigue, she paints a delicate picture, kept inside all day where she spends hours writing a romance novel. She doesn’t venture into the sun and her diet consists of fattened leeches, which Sam fills up himself in a very casual way, reading a book as he does it, like he’s just popped to the hospital to give his annual dose of blood. It’s one of the many areas in which the film remains grounded in reality, and its handling of vampirism feels uniquely modern – something that its low-budget British sensibilities only emphasise. An interchangeable twist of kitchen knife and stake is also brutally effective.
To keep her urges at bay, Rose wears a scented face mask and locks herself in the bedroom at the first whiff of a pulse that isn’t Sam’s. The appearance of a stranger bristles with juicy apprehension, and when a deer screams in distress somewhere in the woodland, it’s a heart-pounding race back to the cabin before Rose loses control. She is, more a less, shielding from ever-present external threat. If vampires were real, you could easily imagine everybody handling it in the same matter-of-fact way. Sheridan treats her mythological framework with the same integrity of a marriage affected by any illness, such as cancer, or perhaps an eating disorder is more apt. The word vampire is smartly avoided and Rose’s condition reluctantly spoken into light.
Matt Stokoe has also written the script, efficient, no exposition, ensuring the power comes from the images of the film and the subtle ways in which Rose and Sam tiptoe around each other. It begins with a brooding, slow-burn display of scene-setting and keeps this restraint and pacing throughout. A telling early moment between the pair has Sam flinch upon Rose’s sudden appearance behind him. You could put this down to a simple fright that anybody would experience, but the film has conveyed its looming dread so effectively early on, that there’s no doubt that this flinch is reflective of prey caught in the eyes of a predator. It reveals everything you need to know about their situation, their love, where they are together and where they’re likely to end up. It’s all the more effective because of Rundle’s natural daintiness and Stokoe’s louder screen presence.
If any drawbacks have been made, it’s Rose that feels short-changed the most. While it may be a love story about her, it’s Sam that’s telling it. You only really see it through his eyes. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Rose doesn’t understand herself, so how could anybody else relate? Her isolation and detachment are tethered to the illness trickling to her heart, it’s unknowable, indefinable, and eventually, it’s going to consume the person that was there. Within its chilly walls and skulking tone, there is a mournful through-line of two characters revealing different sides to the nature of love and commitment. The film is not all that different from another romantic tragedy playing at LFF this year, the dementia-plagued Supernova (2020). In another subversion of vampiric tropes, Rose sees herself more of a burden than a monster. In her way of loving, she wants to give her partner a way out. Of course, Sam can’t go anywhere. His fate is sealed, not from the moment Rose becomes ill, but the moment they fell in love. As he puts it: “Love pins you down like a beast before you even realise it’s there.” Any other feelings are too late, there is only the intoxicating embrace – all the way to the end.
A more vicious bite would’ve taken this film to richer, darker places, but the tension is all in the snarl. The beautiful snowy wilderness seeps into your bones, whilst the rumbling violin score conjures genuine dread. I have reservations about the rushed ending and the film feels too light to take you down, but none of these things hurt my enjoyment. I was enveloped right from the chilly opening moments. I admit to being a sucker for anything vampire-related, and oppressive winter landscapes only draw me in deeper, but Sheridan’s debut is still an astutely directed, quietly affecting slice of domestic horror. Rose: A Love Story takes familiar themes of transformation and the grotesque, strips away the theatrical romanticism and re-configures the idea of a life-draining curse into an eerily current tale of human compassion and resilience. A vampire film for our times.
Director: Jennifer Sheridan
Producers: April Kelley, Sara Huxley, Robert Taylor, Matt Stokoe, Sophie Rundle
Cast: Sophie Rundle, Matt Stokoe, Olive Gray
Release Date: 2020
Header image courtesy of Mini Productions