‘Isabelle’ Review: An Uninspired Exploration of Grief and Ghosts

In Rob Heydon’s thriller Isabelle, Larissa (Amanda Crew) and Matt (Adam Brody) move into their new home in Saratoga Springs, ready to start the next chapter of their lives: they’re expecting a baby. Larissa, who is heavily pregnant, meets their eerie elderly neighbor Ann (Sheila McCarthy), who isn’t fond of small talk. After seeing Ann’s disabled daughter Isabelle (Zoë Belkin) in the window, Larissa experiences excruciating stomach pains and begins to bleed heavily.

At the hospital, a doctor informs Matt that their baby was stillborn, but Larissa survived, despite being medically dead for one minute. This is something that will have lasting effects, the doctor says. While adjusting to life after this trauma, Larissa begins to have hallucinations that her baby is still alive and nightmares pertaining to Isabelle. Is this all Isabelle’s doing or is Larissa simply a victim of loss and trauma?

Isabelle puts forward the themes of grief and possession as it bravely compares itself to classics like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. However, the themes of grief don’t seem strong enough as Larissa’s glum and irritable mood doesn’t allow us to feel fully sympathetic towards her cause. She is angry, rightfully so, but her dialogue seems stiff and unrealistic. The story, fortunately, moves at a quick pace, but here it feels like it pushes conflict between Larissa and Matt too unnaturally.

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© The Wanting Film Inc.

Isabelle, while admittedly creepy at times, is shown at her window repeatedly. For the first half of the film, her presence seems pointless and it makes you wonder why the film is named after her in the first place. As things progress, she becomes more involved, but even still, she hardly seems worth worrying about until the film’s last moments.

From a technical standpoint, Isabelle is so uninspired that it feels like a wasted effort. It could’ve been much stronger had it even bothered to commit to a style of its own and played more into its themes of parental grief, instead of pushing a narrative about possession that it does nothing with. For some reason, Matt becomes half-arsedly concerned that Larissa is possessed, even though she shows zero signs of this.

Eventually, we’re introduced to the possibility of ghosts which feeds into the possession aspect of the film much better than its earlier attempts. Larissa is connected to the spirit world due to the brief time she spent dead, but the film fails to explore this much more interesting aspect of its story until the very end — which is a shame because it’s easily the eeriest part of Isabelle.

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© The Wanting Film Inc.

Heydon said that films like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist are actually about a marriage and a mother-daughter relationship — the family element is something he aimed for when making Isabelle, but unfortunately, it’s not well-executed and misses the mark. Ultimately, it feels like Heydon was more focused on creating a film that paid homage to his favorites, that he forgot to actually create a meaningful story himself.

There are satanic themes and a history of sexual abuse that fill Isabelle’s backstory, but not much is done with these tired conventions. She also suffers from Spina Bifida and is rendered deaf, mute and wheelchair-bound. While her disdain for life is very understandable, it’s unfortunate that a disabled woman (who also suffered from sexual abuse) is turned into a villain here and her backstory wasn’t given more thought.

While the film manages to create some genuinely atmospheric moments now and again — mostly due to Belkin’s amusing yet creepy stare — Isabelle is devoid of any style or substance. The film’s poster is remarkably more exciting than the finished product it advertises. Still, Isabelle might have some things to offer for more casual fans of horror who perhaps aren’t too familiar with the horror classics that the director tries to pull from.

Isabelle will be available on Sky Store, iTunes and UK digital platforms from September 30th.

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