Monday, March 3, 2008

SOLSTICE (2008) d. Daniel Myrick

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

It is often the case that creative influences spring from wells deep in both the conscious and unconscious mind. For every designed artistic element of a film or a novel, there are spontaneous aspects that make the outcome even more absorbing and profound. As a result, people on the critical end of the creative process get to examine the cornices of the inventive soul that the film maker or novelist may not be aware of. For example, to the end of his days, J. R. R. Tolkien passionately disavowed any conscious knowledge of incorporating allegorical material in THE LORD OF THE RINGS, but it is clearly there. Such may be the case with Daniel Myrick’s newest directorial effort SOLSTICE. There are components of the film that show Mr. Myrick’s customary care and skill when it comes to classic story telling and compelling imagery, but after careful consideration there are other, more subtle ingredients that he “may not” have intended that are just as marvelous.

SOLSTICE is the story of young Megan Taylor and her friends who are gathering, as they have in past years, at the Taylor summer home in the bayous of Louisiana for Summer Solstice. The difference this Solstice is that Megan’s twin sister Sophie is unable to join them after her untimely death on Christmas Eve. It isn’t long after her arrival before Megan is haunted by ghostly happenings and spectral sightings, and before long friends and neighbors alike are drawn into a maelstrom of unexplainable occurrences that all seem to point to the presence of Sophie’s spirit.

SOLSTICE is a very good film with numerous strengths. From a purely technical aspect, it is a colorful, crisp and thoroughly attractive film that shows a purist approach to camera work. Whether they are set pieces, character scenes or action sequences, they are well composed, thought-provoking and artistically rendered. In some cases there are craftily constructed dissolves or subtly shifting focuses that force the eye to other corners of the scene. Coupled with this finely sculpted imagery is a multi-layered story co-written by Myrick, Ethan Erwin and Marty Musatov, that starts off stranded in the heart of grief, moves into the periphery of the paranormal and patiently allows that ethereal whirlpool to draw it towards the center of fear. At the same time, a mystery begins to parallel the ghostly tale and like the Solstice Moon begins to eclipse it. Before long, ghost story and murder mystery are delightfully entwined with plot twists and shifting character interplay that makes the story intricate without being convoluted. Daniel Myrick coaxes some solid performances from Shawn Ashmore and Tyler Hoechlin, but it is Elisabeth Harnois who is the focus of the film and her dual portrayal of Megan and Sophie is powerful and convincing. Lastly, a very simple but haunting score adds the final veneer to a movie that feels as much like classic 1950s horror films such as THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL as anything we’ve seen since that time. Just as THE MIST conjured nostalgic images of THEM or THE CRAWLING EYE, SOLSTICE felt like a paean to motion pictures like I SAW WHAT YOU DID or CASTLE OF BLOOD.

Lurking underneath all of these wonderful qualities was another layer of joy waiting to be unearthed. If this wasn’t Daniel Myrick’s purposeful effort at creating a subtle, sophisticated, modern adult take on the SCOODY DOO cartoons of the late 1960s, than his subconscious must have hijacked some of the creative process. Here are just some of the similarities. The film is set in an imposing, lovely, yet ominous southern “mansion” surrounded by miles of eerie bayous and swamps. Five “young people” journey to the mansion in an SUV, accompanied at times during the story by modern “groovy” music. Along the way, they meet the “creepy old guy” who continues to show up at moments of conflict. A local young person befriends and helps the team in their quest. Just as the ghost story develops and more occult clues are found, it becomes obvious there is a mystery underlying the original thread.

There are some obvious differences between classic SCOOBY DOO and SOLSTICE, but these set of similarities just didn’t seem to be coincidental. In no way am I suggesting that any of this cheapens SOLSTICE or makes it “hokey”, rather the reverse. To co-write a screenplay and direct a film that works on so many levels, not the least of which is to invoke a Saturday morning cultural icon of 40 years ago is a singular achievement. With its old-style, patient story telling, dependence on visceral and intellectual scares, lack of gore, nudity and other cultural banes and with its perfectly crafted dose of nostalgic iconography, SOLSTICE may be as close as you’ll find to a true, first-rate Saturday Night TV Movie of the Week experience that the whole family could sit down and enjoy.

There are small weaknesses here and there. The character of Mark is the “Alexandra” (Josie & the Pussycats) of the movie and is such a prick and so unlikable that he steals some of the carefully crafted empathy that is built between the viewer and characters like Megan and Christian. With the exception of an interesting commentary by Daniel Myrick, SOLSTICE has a fairly limited extras menu. In most cases, when the film is this good, it doesn’t detract from the product to have a lean set of goodies, but I found myself really wanting to see and know even more about this project. “You can’t have everything” is a lesson I learn a little more bitterly every year.

Between BELIEVERS and SOLSTICE, Daniel Myrick has brought forth two very different but both very enjoyable projects in the last two years. It is to be hoped that this is just the head of a torrent of other brilliant offerings to come. It is too bad the “paint by numbers” types that blindly guide the tiller of the Film Industry can’t see that motion pictures can be made that use tried and true techniques and don’t have to ape the trendy crap that oozes across the Silver Screen today. I’m going to sit back and look forward to THE OBJECTIVE and hope that Mr. Myrick will make it 3 for 3.

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