The Latent Image [Alexander Birrell, UK/Canada, 2018]
An atmospheric short film from British director Alexander Birrell, The Latent Image tells the story of Robert Walsh, a writer who has isolated himself in a cabin in the woods in order to concentrate on his latest novel, a horror thriller. When an injured and mysterious stranger stumbles into the cabin in the middle of the night, Robert’s reality starts looking a lot like his fiction. It is the kind of twisty-turny plot that can’t be described in too much detail lest it be spoiled. In particular, the film’s clever and ironic ending is a great example of a seemingly unimportant detail coming back into play just as the audience will have forgotten about it.
The Latent Images wears its influences on its sleeve. The writer protagonist with his typewriter brings to mind many a Stephen King story, most prominently Misery (1987). The cabin brings to mind the quintessential horror genre setting seen in such films as The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, USA, 1981), and the presence of a dangerous yet alluring stranger is very Alfred Hitchcock. Despite these many influences, Birrell’s film manages to stand on its own as a spooky and tension filled piece, thanks to a strong grasp of cinematic language and an interesting metatextual turn that the film takes in its last few minutes. The acting is strong as well; Joshua Tonks (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Birrell) plays Robert’s simultaneous fear and fascination towards the unnamed stranger compellingly, making for a consistent source of tension throughout the story.
The technical aspects of the film must be applauded. In particular, the use of lighting and shadows creates a palpable sense of menace. The stranger’s shadow seems to stalk the cabin with him and lurk over Robert. The cabin itself never looks cosy or comfortable enough, it is always slightly underlit and unwelcoming. The lighting, coupled with Birrell’s aforementioned grasp of cinematic language, grants The Latent Image a strong sense of visual storytelling. The editing is also solid, showing a clear sense of when to cut and when to hold on a shot.
Without wishing to spoil, The Latent Image leans into metatextual themes strongly in its ending. “I don’t like exposition,” Robert says as he interrupts the stranger’s monologue about his murderous motivations. “I prefer my stories to be clean.” It’s on the nose and far from subtle, but the meta theme woven through the film, that the story Robert is trying to tell is essentially coming to life around him, is more effective and an interesting commentary on how the creative process can sometimes feel all consuming.
The Latent Image is an absorbing and unsettling horror thriller with plenty to say about its genre and the process of creating art.
'The Latent Image' was a film submission in consideration for Short Focus Film Festival 2018.