Looking for an overlooked film? A little something much better than it sounds? A film you might pass by on the video shelf because you’ve never heard how good it is? Then check out ISOLATION. Working from a rather inauspicious premise (a genetic experiment on an Irish cow farm creates a killer mutant calf), writer-director Billy O’Brien conjures a remarkable genre achievement: a somber, sad, and absolutely convincing film that is also genuinely terrifying. ISOLATION is a wonderful example of the heights that the genre can achieve when the material is treated with absolute conviction and human sympathy, instead of the gleeful gore that mars too many modern efforts.
True to the film’s title, the story is contained entirely within the confines of its isolated setting, featuring only a handful of characters. John Lynch heads the cast as Dan, a poor farmer who has agreed to use his cows in an experiment designed to increase birth rates (and hence increase the food supply). Things go wrong when the latest birth is marred by complications that result in a vicious little off-spring with extremely sharp teeth; although short lived, it is only the first of many – a potential population explosion that could over-run the world if allowed to escape from the farm. Wandering into this mess comes a couple on the run from some angry parents, and there is also a sympathetic vet and a cold-hearted scientist on hand, who will stop at nothing to quarantine the situation before it can spread.
It is a testament to ISOLATION’s effectiveness that viewers remain glued in our seats despite a story that sounds like a fodder for a camp classic. On a simple story level, the film generates a marvelous sense of menace by the fact the fact that its three principle characters, Dan the farmer and the young couple, are in no way equipped to deal with it. They are not scientists or experts or typical movie heroes; they are just ordinary people confronted with a situation that demands their attention, whether they can handle it or not. On their shoulders falls the heavy weight of nipping this potentially worldwide disaster in the bud, and it’s genuinely moving to see the lengths they go to – and the sacrifices they make – in the process.
The storytelling is aided by a visual look that suggests a believable, lived-in universe, one where everyday reality creates a sense of conviction that survives the intrusion of the unlikely science-fiction element. The film actually resembles some dreary foreign art house effort more than a genre film: an Irish production, ISOLATION has a grungy, utterly convincing feel – completely lacking Hollywood gloss – that would have been appropriate for a movie about the potato famine or the IRA. Setting a horror story in this context turns out to have been a winning gambit, filled with details (like the use of a winch to aid in the difficult calf birth) that will set you nerves on edge even before the more overt horror appears.
The monsters themselves are wisely kept off-screen, usually obscured by shadows or hidden beneath mud or hay. When glimpsed, they are mostly shown in squishy close-ups that make it hard to discern details, suggesting just enough to make them seem dangerous and leaving the rest up mostly to our imagination. Consequently, ISOLATION winds up not being a schlockfest about mutant cows but an unnerving thriller about a fast-spreading contagion that could have devastating consequences for the world if our ill-prepared heroes fail to hold the line. Whether they in fact succeed may be an open question (depending on how you read the ambiguous final shot), but watching them rise to the occasion creates an inspiring sense of wonder amidst the bloodshed and horror.
ISOLATION won the Best Film award at the 2006 Screamfest Film Festival in Hollywood. The film also took home honors in the categories for Best Director (Billy O’Brien) and Best Actress (Essie Davis).
ISOLATION (2005). Written and directed by Billy O’Brien. Cast: Essie Davis, Sean Harris, Marcel Lures, Crispen Letts, John Lynch, Ruth Negga.