Travis Leamons // Film Critic
Rated R, 94 minutes.
Director: Kelsey Egan Cast: Jessica Alexander, Ania Taljaard, Hilton Pelser, Kitty Harris, Adrienne Pearce, and Brent Vermeulen
Who are you? It’s more than a song by The Who or the topic for an essay to be completed by The Breakfast Club. Who we are is, by definition, our identity. Sex, gender, job, residence, hobbies, and interests are a few of the labels attached to let people know who we are. Our uniqueness comes through experience. Interactions, activities, and the good and bad memories we retain help shape the person we believe ourselves to be. But what if we could no longer hold onto our memories? Kelsey Egan’s debut, GLASSHOUSE, explores this idea and the pain and freedom that can co-exist.
A sentry sits at her post, surveying the forest line for any interlopers. A shot rings out. A stranger collapses. Transported back to the house, the stranger is cut open. His entrails…harvested. Clearly, we’re not in Kansas – if we ever were. We are in a dystopian future, a few contagions after COVID-19. The latest one is dubbed “The Shred,” an air toxin that can strip away memories from those who inhale it. To this end, the pathogen is incurable.
A family of five has taken refuge in a nature preserve. They live in a giant glasshouse. Bee (Jessica Alexander) is the oldest sibling, followed by Evie (Ania Taljaard), Gabe (Brent Vermeulen), and Daisy (Kitty Harris). They tend the land, exiting the house as if they were about to set foot on the moon; their heads are shielded from the toxic fumes with plastic helmets with iron piping to filter air and a cloth scarf to act as a sealer. Their guardian is Mother (Adrienne Pearce). She maintains order through the practice of rituals to help retain their family’s memories and be steadfast against The Shred. Everything is idyllic until Bee injures a stranger (Hilton Pelser) instead of killing, as is customary.
Right now, you’re probably thinking Egan and her producer/co-writer, Emma De Wet, were making their own interpretation of the western THE BEGUILED. The correlations are there: a wounded stranger, a house full of women dressed in white linen, and a curious nature. Further, Justus de Jager’s cinematography carries an ethereal quality, and Rowan Jackson’s editing lulls your perception of past and present and if what we’re seeing is a reality. Then there’s Hilton Pelser as the mystery man.
Unlike Clint Eastwood or Colin Farrell in those two interpretations of Thomas P. Cullinan’s novel (originally published as A PAINTED DEVIL), Pelser’s presence commands our utmost attention. Slowly ingratiating himself among the womenfolk, the Stranger is subtly disarming. Evie finds him repellant, while his presence entertains the youngest, Daisy. As he recuperates from wounds sustained, Bee becomes less restrictive to Mother’s puritanical ways in maintaining order. The Stranger’s presence creates an unbalance. For balance to be restored, a sizable ripple occurs – involving all parties.
The fear of forgetting and memory retention are powerful forces. Our memories shape identity. But should retaining them be an obligation? The gravity to which Egan explores this theme is lofty, and I didn’t feel the sheer weight of the complexity until well after the film had finished. That’s when you know you have something special.
Much like Jennifer Kent and THE BABADOOK and Natalie Erika James with RELIC, Kelsey Egan’s GLASSHOUSE is the best kind of psychological horror. Its gothic tone and production design – shot entirely within the Pearson Conservatory in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, following COVID-19 protocols – add to the allure. The glass enclosure is quite a sight and ubiquitous to all. The history of the siblings can be seen in the painted windows. Fissures sealed with glue annually prevent the virus from penetrating. However, the sticky substance creates an opaqueness clouding the windows and perhaps the perception of what is inside versus outdoors.
GLASSHOUSE is a disarming piece of horror. Egan challenges our fears of forgetting and suggests whether it is better to lessen the obligation of keeping memories and be open to the idea of blissful oblivion. The stories we tell ourselves to sleep better at night may be true, inflated, or false. It’s all in how we want to remember.
GLASSHOUSE is currently playing at the Fantasia International Film Festival (in person and online from August 5 – August 25).