It’s always great to see a woman taking charge in a horror film, whether she is reluctantly doing so out of fear or she is going so out of experience and survival skill. Anna, female lead of Shut In is doing it (attempting to kill her killers, that is) for both of the above reasons, which would make you think she’d be a pretty damn compelling and empowering protagonist. And she is those things. Until the script fails her.
The good news is that the actress chosen to play Anna is perfectly cast, managing to move between the scared young victim of the start of the film who has never left the house and is severely intimidated (we’re talking pee-your-pants intimidated) when some robbers enter her safe space, and the motivated attacker who is determined to make these men pay for their violation. Beth Riesgraf (previously of TV series Leverage) is actually a reason I’d recommend the film, as she certainly could and should show up in more genre picks, especially if she can play a more explicit villain. Riesgraf has much more meaty material to play with than the actors playing her attackers (Jack Kesy, Martin Starr and Rory Culkin) do, which is one of the pleasures that women can sometimes (and I say sometimes with a heavy heart) be afforded in the horror realm, with the Final Girl trope setting them up as potential leads or plot drivers. This woman makes you believe that this house, with its physical and emotional secrets, really is her begrudged home and you side with Anna as a result, even as she appears to make some questionable decisions.
Really, the problem with Shut In is how the men get involved. While an early plot point involving Anna’s brother’s death is necessary (she’s left alone in this big family house and having to fend for herself while dealing with growing agoraphobia), the family twists that come later are heavy handed and underdeveloped, especially considering that they are supposed to be our Big Explainer of the piece. This might be a consequence of the fact that the production team were paid to come up with a concept following the minor success of fellow genre film Delivery and as a result, the plot was likely dreamed up all too fast, with shocking the audience seemingly being a higher priority than challenging them or their lead. The sad part is, they had a perfect and sadly realistic reveal in place (no spoilers, but you’ll see it coming), but just took it that one step too far and in effect turned what could have been a story about an abuse victim finding strength to fight back into an exercise in ill-treatment for the sake of ill-treatment.
It sounds like I hated this film, and the truth is, I really didn’t. It started extremely strong and reminded me some of my favourite modern horrors You’re Next (see: the “surprisingly” strong female hero) and The Loved Ones (see: the ways in which she punishes her male antogonists). But the final act really lost me and several other women watching the film (yes, I asked). It’s unnecessarily exploitative of this character and what she’s been through, even if it doesn’t feature a literal scene of abuse (explanations are just as harrowing), and as a result, the final payoff doesn’t seem as authentic and cathartic–for us and for her–as it should be. It’s almost as though the writers (T.J. Cimfel, David White) opened the door for Anna and then forgot to give her a hand actually getting through it because they were too busy focusing on the male characters who made her afraid to do it on her own in the first place.
Emily is covering the Toronto After Dark Film Festival from October 15 to 23, 2015 live from Toronto, Canada. Stay tuned for more female-centric reviews throughout the fest.
This piece is part of Galloween, Cinefilles’ month of all-girl horror coverage. Click the image to read more.