Fantasia Review: 'Glasshouse' Is a New Take on Pandemic Horror

Directed by Kelsey Egan

Starring Jessica Alexander, Adrienne Pearce, Hilton Pelser, Anja Taljaard, Brent Vermeulen

BY Rachel HoPublished Aug 17, 2021

When director Kelsey Egan co-wrote Glasshouse with Emma Lungiswa De Wet, the world was in a very different place. We welcomed people into our homes without hesitation and didn't automatically place six feet between us and someone with the sniffles. But as coincidence would have it, Glasshouse is a film that rings very true these days. It's a dystopian science-fiction thriller that imagines a world ravaged by an airborne disease, causing a family to create a self-sustaining home for their protection and shelter.

Mother (Adrienne Pearce) is the matriarch of the clan, looking after her three girls and son. The two elder daughters, Bee (Jessica Alexander) and Evie (Anja Taljaard), assume sentry duties and take care of the household chores and crop harvesting. The only boy, Gabe (Brent Vermeulen), has been touched by the disease and, while not completely gone, his mind has become a shadow of what it was before. This family, along with the youngest sister Daisy (Kitty Harris), live a relatively idyllic life amidst the devastation of the world. They engage in rituals to maintain their spirit and do their best to preserve their family's history.

One day on sentry duty, Bee encounters an injured stranger (Hilton Pelser) trespassing on their land. Believing him to possibly be their brother who left the home some time before, Bee brings the Stranger inside their sanitized environment, much to the dismay of Evie. Before long, the Stranger becomes a part of their household and the repressed memories and secrets of this house unravel.

Glasshouse is a film that can fall into many genres: science fiction, thriller, horror and drama. Egan weaves creative folk horror into the story, giving the film a rustic energy that is enhanced by the costume design.

At its core, Glasshouse is an exploration of trauma and how people cope. The varying attitudes and perspectives give the film and characters a richness that is served greatly by the performances of the ensemble. Alexander is a stand-out, providing effective tension and unease at a critical part of the movie that crystallizes the story's arc and themes.

The production design of Glasshouse deserves a special mention, especially given the title of the film. The Pearson Observatory, which opened in 1882 in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, is used as the glasshouse. The paradox of using an inherently fragile structure that has endured for nearly 150 years is a beautiful metaphor for humanity's resilience in the face of seemingly never ending tragedy. Along with the production designer, Kerry Van Lillienfeld, Egan creates an appropriately claustrophobic atmosphere in direct contrast to the open-air quality of the glass panes, emphasizing the isolated world.

Glasshouse is an original story that doesn't rely on our collective experience of the last year and a half plus. The parallels are hard to ignore, but Egan's take on a dystopian world is fresh, with the folk elements creating space from this reality.

We've been treated to a few wonderful South African films on the festival circuit this year. Gaia and Five Tigers were both well-received at South by Southwest and Sundance, respectively. The diversity in stories coming from the country (Fried Barry remains one of the strangest films to be released on Shudder, surely) is really exciting, and Kelsey Egan is a filmmaker to keep an eye on.

Fantasia Film Festival runs August 5 to 25 in Montreal. Screenings take place both virtually and in-person.
(Local Motion Pictures)

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