Ever since Silence of the Lambs crashed the Oscars, the label “thriller” has been used and abused by big studio releases too afraid to lose A-list cred with the dirty word ‘horror.’ Every now and then, however, a film comes along that actually understands what it means to grab its audience on a psychological level.
Barbara Stepansky’s Fugue is, for lack of a better word, a very tight and haunting thriller. Solidly focused and well-executed all around, it flirts with familiar sub-genres (haunted house, wronged woman) before becoming something quite interesting all of its own.
Fugue is the story of Charlotte, a young woman starting a new life with her former professor-turned significant other. Although Charlotte seems happy, she recently suffered a mysterious (even to herself) tragedy that erased the last few months of her memory. As if things weren’t complicated enough, Charlotte also sense something amiss (possibly of a supernatural nature) in her new home.
With a mood that calls to mind other yuppy-centered genre fare like Rosemary’s Baby and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Fugue draws great strength from its female-centric approach. Newcomer Abigail Mittel is onscreen for the film’s entire running time and much like Mia Farrow’s Rosemary Woodhouse, her young face and suggested frailty serve her well. Though we never really know too much about Charlotte–aside from her looks, what about this redhead clicked so well with a genius professor?–we want to be on her side due to Mittel’s presence. As her live-in boyfriend, Richard Gunn has a complicated part to play, keeping the audience–and Charlottte–guessing whether he’s a concerned lover or smarmy villain. We’re never quite sure how to feel about this man, which helps to further develop the strong atmosphere of constant unease.
Early scenes suggest an almost Victorian haunting as jump scares pile up with surprisingly effective results. Though some of the relationship drama drags, Stepansky carefully builds suspense to keep us tightly on edge, wisely toying with a repetitive piano piece and constantly experimenting with ghostly shots we think we’ve seen before, but served here with a slight twist. Eventually, Fugue switches gears into more grounded scientific territory, an intriguing plot direction that doesn’t get the development it probably deserves. There’s something a little disappointing in the somewhat standard slasher inspired finale, but that doesn’t necessarily take away from the eeriness we’ve already witnessed.
Well-acted and powerfully executed, Fugue nicely packs both momentary scares and deeper psychological horror inside a believable woman-on-the-edge tale. To learn more about future screenings and releases of this film, visit Fugue’s official website at www.fuguethefilm.com.