'The Retreat' Can't Quite Put a New Spin on Old Horror Tropes Directed by Pat Mills
Starring Tommie-Amber Pirie, Celina Sinden
Published May 20, 2021A sense of vulnerability is the key to any affective horror film, and this often means choosing a rural setting. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Last House on the Left, Children of the Corn and many others extract terror from the relatable scenario of taking city dwellers out of the familiar and into the unknowable wilds of nature — where they encounter whomever (or whatever) may call it their home.
This preamble was necessary to understand why a film like Pat Mills' The Retreat can feel so disappointingly routine. Despite its best efforts to put a spin spin on its premise, The Retreat can't escape the fact that it is working within a familiar formula that has been done to death as far back as the 1970s.
It begins with a solid base formed out of its endearing and properly fleshed-out characters, and sadly reverts to tired horror cliches once the film is tasked with attempting to scare you. Lead characters Renee and Layna (Tommie-Amber Pirie and Celina Sinden) have the natural chemistry of a well-meaning but fundamentally opposite couple caught in the midst of a rough patch in their relationship, as they look for a getaway from the hustle and bustle of the city to help smooth things over. As the well-known scenario goes, the further they drift from civilization, the more exposed to the unknown they become, and they are increasingly convinces that sinister entities are stalking their every move.
The film does an admirable job in investing you in these two "final girls" and their efforts to survive against the sadistic designs of their stalkers, but when all the story beats of their being hunted, captured, and escaping play exactly as we expect them to and have seen time and time again, the tension is utterly deflated.
The filmmaking itself is perfunctory, with the highlight being its chilling, naturalized sound design and the lowlight being Mills' tendency to skimp on the lighting in a miscalculated attempt to make the film seem scarier through its inscrutability. While Mills can establish a sense of place with his effective use of overhead establishing shots, which reveal the dense labyrinth of forest surrounding our protagonists' isolated cabin, that sense of isolation never comes into play when the scenes are too dark and murky to make anything out. Even so, as this plot comes from a generic template of rural horror, Renee and Layna's struggles against their tormentors is only thrilling to those unfamiliar to these weathered tropes or the myriad films where they are put to better use.
Where The Retreat hopes and slightly succeeds at distinguishing itself from a cluttered marketplace of similar films is its explicitly queer framing. The couple believe that they are being stalked by an uncaring, uncivilized force — and this takes on new meanings when their nameless antagonists occasionally mutter something bigoted. With homophobia as an implied motive, this allows for a unique reading of what would be a rudimentary but serviceable thriller. It doesn't do much for The Retreat's stale premise or its muted scares, but it does add a notable aspect of catharsis when, as these films go, the tides are turned and the hunter becomes the hunted. And for this kinds of horror film, that says a lot.
The Retreat comes out on VOD on May 21. (Quiver Distribution)