Isabelle is a creative psychological horror film directed by Robert Heydon, but one that suffers from trying to work in two very different sides to the same plot. This low-budget Canadian film revolves around a couple going through an incredibly rough time following a stillborn baby, but it also follows a couple being haunted by a neighboring ghost. Adam Brody and Amanda Crews star as Matt and Larissa Kane, leading us through an experience that consistently gets derailed by its split plot.
The opening creates an uncomfortable atmosphere as we get very dark, mostly obscured shots of what appears to be a female figure — though from the twisting and blurry camera and the dark lighting it’s not immediately clear. Psychological horror should be able to make the viewer uneasy, and it’s little things like this that can add up to an enjoyable experience. Following this image, a door is suddenly opened, light floods in, and the movie truly starts. Isabelle certainly does things right at times, and some scenes create atmosphere well.
The two main actors in Isabelle put in work, and at times contribute well-crafted sides to their characters.Adam Brody especially does a great job of being a lovable and comedic figure early on, and his casting comes as a great choice. After the opening scenes leave him in grief along with his shell-shocked wife, his demeanor changes — it has more weight to it, even though the brief scenes of him and his wife enjoying themselves are plainly set up to knock down.
Larissa’s decline in mental health — as well as whatever dark energies are affecting her — could stem from either her intense trauma from losing a baby, or through her having been clinically dead for a full minute. The film sets up multiple angles, and here is where Isabelle really suffers. Early on it feels as if the story is split into two: a tale of a couple moving in next door to some sort of cursed family, and a woman whose miscarriage and brief time spent dead seem to have attached some sort of demonic presence onto her. When playing with the latter, the film feels strong, but with the former, it feels weak and misguided. A prime example of the gap between the two sub-stories of the film as they’re building is when Larissa wakes up and walks to the baby’s room. She sits in the rocking chair and comforts a teddy bear, imagining it’s her baby. It’s a very sad and very real scene, but is immediately cut away from in order to show some sort of creepy religious room in the neighbor’s house.
Despite coming out with some competent psychological horror, Isabelle feels divided. It would have benefited greatly from a tighter focus, perhaps exploring the idea of Larissa’s brief death and miscarriage more. The Isabelle Pelway demonic entity side of things is certainly interesting, but not nearly as much as the rest, and the frequent flitting back and forth interrupts pacing at times. However, the final leg sees the Pelway side of things really pick up, and it finally intersects well enough. It’s unfortunate that portion of the story stumbles so hard early, as the payoff is a decent end for the rocky beginning. The finale is a unique approach to a cliched ending, and it works quite well. Unfortunately the main antagonist of the film doesn’t look all that frightening or imposing, obviously influenced in some regard by the ‘Japanese ghost girl’ look, but not really finding effectiveness with it.
There are things that Isabelle does right,some of which quite well, such as a realness and weight to the breakdown of both Matt and Larissa Kane. Their tragedy plays an integral part to the story, and most of the shining moments from the actors come from these moments. Amanda Crews does a great job when she’s portraying Larissa lashing out and not accepting help, not wanting to let go of the baby she lost; why do a complete u-turn that makes her unnaturally inquisitive and absorbed by who the neighbors may be, entirely losing the character built up in past scenes? Adam Brody doesn’t put in the performance of a lifetime, but pulling back into his shell after his wife miscarries is played well, and whilst it’s not all that subtle, it’s a nice touch to have him show such a protective and determined side after discussing how his mother’s departure affected him as a child.
All in all, Isabelle is an uneven film; what’s good is really well done, but the first three-quarters of the movie feels very split. Approaching horror themes through the lens of pregnancy, miscarriage, and near-death experiences is a fantastic and not often explored area, but working in another side of things takes focus away and feels out of place until close to the end. The acting is also sometimes well done and sometimes not, just as the rest of the film is. This could come down to writing, or possibly the actors themselves, but too often we see characters flicker between two completely different sides, as Isabelle can’t make up it’s mind on what storyline is more important.