It’s a sadly familiar story for horror fans everywhere: an ostensibly new release pops up on your radar with a generic title and premise, and shortly after picking it up you learn it’s in fact a few years old already and has been sat gathering dust on the distributor’s shelf this whole time, none of which ever bodes well. It’s with an almost total lack of surprise, then, that I found Within (released stateside last year, but shot in 2014) to be one of the blandest, least interesting horror movies I’ve sat down to in 2017. While it may play with expectations in some faintly curious ways, throwing up some big red herrings as to the nature of the central threat, the film from director Phil Claydon and writer Gary Dauberman ultimately fails to do anything genuinely innovative or surprising with their rehashed genre tropes, and only succeeds in being creepy in all the wrong ways.
Like so many horror movies before it and doubtless innumerable more in years to come, Within opens on a family moving into a new home. The family dynamic, in this instance, is a slight break from the norm, as we have fortysomething blue collar dad John (Michael Vartan) settling into the suburbs with his new wife Melanie (Nadine Velazquez), and the daughter of his first marriage, Hannah (Erin Moriarty); the official synopsis describes John as a widower, although I don’t recall any direct reference to the fate of Hannah’s mother. In any case, this happily isn’t one of those moody-teen-versus-evil-stepmother routines; Hannah’s a moody teen, for sure, but it’s a more classically adolescent generalised contempt for everything. The main thorn in her side is being dragged to a new place miles away from her old friends, most importantly her boyfriend Tommy (Blake Jenner, the disarmingly pretty young man from Everybody Wants Some!!), whilst at the same time being on paternally-enforced house arrest for the summer after an alcohol-fuelled party at the previous family abode landed the underage drinker a night in the cells. Of course, Hannah’s resentment of her new lot in life slowly but surely gives way to a sense of genuine unease, as weird things keep happening; various items not staying in the place she left them, her cat getting stuck outside with no one having let it out, and – with particular frequency – her sheets slipping off the bed completely in the night. Could all this be the handiwork of their sleazy new neighbour Ray (Ronnie Gene Blevins), a greasy locksmith who may as well have the words ‘bad guy’ tattooed on his forehead – or is something more mysterious going on, possibly related to the previous tenants?
Again, to give Within some credit, the precise nature of the threat does remain enigmatic for some time, leaving the audience unsure as to whether we’re watching a home invasion movie, a haunted house movie, or something a little different. However, this all winds up something of a moot point as it quite quickly becomes clear that, whatever’s meant to be going on, Within is ultimately a very by-the-numbers exercise in voyeurism. A writer who’s more well-versed than I am in feminist film theory and Laura Mulvey’s ‘male gaze’ would doubtless find plenty to say about the film, but you don’t have to be an academic to recognise the unpleasantly leering nature of the whole endeavour, all particularly icky as it hinges on the objectification of a character who, although her age is never directly specified, would seem to be only on the cusp of the age of consent.
It’s curious that the DVD art puts Michael Vartan’s name front-and-centre and emphasises only the creepy house aspect of the film, because this is one instance in which a lascivious cover emphasising the body of a young woman (as was used so inappropriately on The Witch) would be entirely fitting. Erin Moriarty’s Hannah is the clear focal point from early on, constantly dressed in short-shorts, knee-length socks and crop tops, and shot from low angles; I was having flashbacks to Hannah Tointon in The Children in no time. The problem is, because Vartan’s father and Velazquez’s stepmother largely remain on the sidelines, the abundance of overtly sexualised shots of the young lead soon feels relentless and inescapably sleazy. One might hope the fact that she’s never actually shown naked would dilute the sleaziness, but somehow that only seems to intensify it; the whole thing feels like an extended tease designed to work up the audience into a frenzy of anticipation. Of course, none of this would necessarily be a problem if it felt like Within was in some way offering up a commentary on voyeurism, but this never seems to be the case; the camera does not critique, it simply indulges, and it leaves the viewer feeling the worst kind of dirty.
Once more, to give just a little credit where it’s due, I will confess that the final act of Within did take me a little by surprise; while the bulk of the film is fairly tame in the horror stakes, things take a darker, more brutal turn in the last scenes which I did not anticipate, and there are a number of relatively pleasing nods to a few genre classics (most notably a direct lift from The Silence of the Lambs). However, this is all too little too late in my book. Within exemplifies so much of what is wrong with contemporary studio horror: all the effort seems to have gone into ensuring it’s handsomely shot and handsomely cast, with very little concern given for generating real atmosphere, taking real chances, or building characters which the audience, not to mention the cast, can actually give a shit about: beyond Ronnie Gene Blevins as the amusingly OTT nasty neighbour, almost none of the cast – Vartan in particular – look like they actually want to be there. This, sadly, extends to JoBeth Williams in her cameo as the obligatory kind old lady down the street; clearly it was hoped that casting the Poltergeist star might bring a bit of that horror classic spirit to Within. No such luck.
Within is available on DVD and on-demand platforms now, from Warner Bros.