“ACROSS THE RIVER” (Fantasia Movie Review)
A slow burn that never quite catches fire, ACROSS THE RIVER nonetheless marks Italian director Lorenzo Bianchini as a filmmaker with good instincts when it comes to the basics of the horror genre.
A world premiere at Montreal’s currently running Fantasia film festival, ACROSS THE RIVER is set in the mountains on the Italian/Slovenian border, where wildlife researcher Marco Contrada (Marco Marchese) is conducting ongoing studies of the local animal population. As the movie opens, we join him on one of his regular trips up into the trees to check on cameras placed around the area and review their footage. In these early scenes, Bianchini and cinematographer Daniele Trani make strong use of their remote locations; as opposed to some forest-bound horror movies, in which the characters never seem too far from a craft services table and makeup trailer, they elicit a genuine mood of isolation, that Marco is truly alone in the foreboding wilderness.
Or is he alone? After he captures a fox and then turns it loose with an attached microcamera, the resulting images he remotely accesses reveal that something hungry seems to be prowling the area. His investigation leads him to a clutch of abandoned houses located where the title indicates, and the difficulty Marco has getting his RV to the other side of the water is but one sign of the trouble he’s getting himself into. So is his discovery of a mess of bloody bones—a sign of what he calls “abnormal predatory activity” that puts him in a precautionary mood. Far from the typical blunderer into potential danger, Marco acts reasonably and arms himself when it’s clearly necessary, evincing a naturalist’s curiosity combined with a reasonable sense of self-preservation.
Bianchini, who also scripted with Michela Bianchini and edited ACROSS THE RIVER, does a good job maintaining interest and tension with this one-man scenario, playing out long takes without dialogue (Marco has no gratuitous sounding board), replacing it with shivery music by Stefano Sciascia and Davide Piotto’s sound design, and draining the color from the image to the point where the entire forest seems suffused by death. That atmosphere becomes even more charged with menace once Marco reaches the little village and slowly discovers bits of evidence of awful things that once occurred there. Every so often, there are video snippets from his tree- and animal-cams that add a bit of a found-footage dynamic to the proceedings, and cutaways to an old man living nearby who seems to know something about the region’s troubled history.
That intercutting establishes a buildup to a resolution that never quite arrives, and ACROSS THE RIVER’s second half winds up losing some of the grip that the first has quietly built up. We’re given enough hints about the nature of what’s threatening Marco (among them images of the inevitable spooky little girls) to make us want to know more, and we end up being left wanting; while a film like this doesn’t require a tell-all conclusion, the movie’s plot strands never intersect in a meaningful way, with the result that it comes off like something of a tease. Having established a weird nightmare logic, Bianchini ends his film with the sense of having woken up before the dream is over.
Still, the trail leading there is fraught with sufficient eerie ambience to leave one impressed with what Bianchini is able to achieve with the simple ingredients he mixes up here. He’s clearly a man with a command of the medium, and ACROSS THE RIVER has enough good stuff in it to suggest that his next film, with a hopefully stronger script, will truly knock it out of the woods.