The utility of a period piece varies from filmmaker to filmmaker. Some may see it as a more romanticized setting, some are drawn to the societal paradigms to work within, and others simply want to bring history back to life.
In the case of the horror realm, it’s a bit different, but no less effective. A handful of recent genre films—most notably Robert Eggers’ The Witch—have branded themselves as a “folk tale,” placing their stories during the Industrial Revolution (or earlier). Sure, this provides an excuse for aesthetic choices like costumes, architecture, and dialect, but it can also amplify the terror by removing our protagonists from the comforts and fail-safes of modern society.
When we meet Gwen, she’s at the crest of a downward spiral. It’s the 19th century in the Snowdonia region of Wales in a small quarry town. Her mother has fallen ill, her father still hasn’t come home, their sheep have been slaughtered, and their vegetables aren’t selling at the market. Oh, and someone’s nailed an animal heart to their front door.
It’s no surprise that this film, which was previously titled The Dark Outside, bears the name of its protagonist. Her story is the story. Barely a moment goes by where she’s not on screen, unless she’s dreaming or reminiscing.
Thankfully, Eleanor Worthington-Cox is quite good in the titular role. Her direction is little more than an oscillation between fear and grief, but she plays those two notes aptly for the action around her. Maxine Peake is the other standout performance here as Gwen’s mother, who struggles to keep the family together under circumstances that her daughters don’t yet understand.
Worthington-Cox and Peake are given a rich landscape to work with, even if it’s a rather bleak one. Gwen’s home is intentionally muted and drab, which adds to the brutal beauty of the mountains and farmland and rolling hills—even when they’re strewn with ashes and blood. A mixture of slow pans and static shots really helps the scenery stand out.
It’s these two performances and the cinematography that carry Gwen for the most part, because writer/director William McGregor (known mainly for his British television work) has crafted a slow-burning mood piece for his feature debut. As the title suggests, it’s partially a character study, but the story elements are a bit misleading—though perhaps intentionally so.
That’s because Gwen isn’t really a horror movie. It’s billed as horror, and it builds as horror, but the result is more along the lines of a drama—one dealing with issues like mental health, classism, family dynamics, corrupt governments, and mob mentalities. Of course, it’s rather violent at times, and there are a few nice moments of terror (including one particularly chill-inducing moment brought to life through some excellent practical effects), but the horror elements taper off as the third act rounds into form rather than escalating.
Gwen is a film with a lot on its mind, and as is often the case, that makes it an expectations game of sorts. If you’re looking for unfiltered scares and an action-packed climax, you might want to look elsewhere. But if you want to experience what real-life fear might’ve resembled two centuries ago, you’ll find it here.
Gwen will be streaming on Shudder starting Friday, August 16, 2019.