The Ones Below

| September 9, 2016

Motherhood has been the subject of some of the most compelling horror films in history. Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby immediately comes to mind of course, and French filmmakers Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury put a memorably gory handprint on the subject with their instant-classic debut feature Inside in 2007. The style of 60s and 70s psychological thriller Polanski kickstarted with Repulsion has been a popular reference point recently for horror filmmakers. Debut feature writer/director David Farr’s The Ones Below aims directly for both motherhood and “psychotic women,” but ends up falling somewhat short.

Kate (Clémence Poésy) and Justin (Stephen Campbell Moore) are expecting their first child when new neighbors move in to the flat below theirs. As it happens, the new neighbors are also expecting. Theresa (Laura Birn) and Jon (David Morrissey) seem to have everything under control, unlike Kate and Justin. But during a dinner party, the couple behaves strangely, and the evening ends in a tragic accident. Theresa and Jon move away for a while, and after they return things seem to have more or less returned to normal. But soon Kate notices there may be something sinister in the kindness of their neighbors. Is she losing her mind, or are they trying to make her think so?

The main problem with The Ones Below is that there is never really any question as to whether or not Theresa and Jon are devious villains. From the second Jon appears on screen, he’s an imposing threat–it doesn’t help that he’s played by David Morrissey, a fine actor but one whose presence lends Jon an air of casual menace even when he’s supposed to be engaged in meaningless small talk. Worse, the two characters are never defined much beyond the audience’s initial impressions of them. They’re both so obsessed with children that it’s all they talk about, and their disdainful reaction toward Kate and Justin’s uncertainty about starting a family seems wildly out of proportion. There’s precious little information given about their history, and what there is seems tangential to the action at best.

This odd approach to doling out information extends to the backstory of Kate, ostensibly the film’s protagonist. There seems to be an ominous incident in her family’s history, but what exactly it was is never directly addressed and the audience is left to figure out for themselves why Kate’s mother is so bizarrely standoffish. Ambiguity and allowing the audience to figure things out on their own is fine, of course, and can be a satisfying narrative strategy. But here, so much is left unsaid that the film becomes somewhat frustrating from a basic narrative standpoint. Thankfully the cast is solid, especially Poésy’s work in the last act as Kate’s world unravels. Farr gives her plenty of unnerving close-ups, and the whole film has a cold technical precision that feels more like Cronenberg than the Lifetime Original movie it occasionally recalls. It’s technically sound, but The Ones Below suffers from a lack of suspense that ultimately prevents it from being the thriller it could have been.

Magnolia released The Ones Below on Blu-ray and DVD on 6 September 2016. Special features include three “behind the scenes” featurettes and the film’s theatrical trailer.

About the Author:

Jason Coffman is a film writer living in Chicago. He is author of "The Unrepentant Cinephile," and a regular contributor to Daily Grindhouse and Film Monthly as well as a member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle. He is co-director of the Chicago Cinema Society and proud owner of 35mm prints of Andy Milligan's "Guru, the Mad Monk." Follow his long-form film writing on Medium: www.medium.com/@rabbitroom
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