For Whom Isabelle Tolls – ‘Isabelle’ – Film Review

The name ‘Isabelle’ means ‘Devoted to God’, or ‘God is my oath’ in Spanish, which may be the ironic reason why the makers of this film chose it for the godless Isabelle, a wheelchair-bound woman with spina bifida who terrorises her new neighbours after they have a miscarriage. More cynically, though, it could have been chosen for its semantic similarity to Annabelle, the name of the creepy doll in a popular series of films that were a spin-off from The Conjuring (Wan, 2013). Whether hoping for subconscious name association or not, Isabelle is a ‘real’ person in this film, and her character should therefore be treated with the requisite respect. Isabelle is not an evil spirit trapped in a doll that can be used uncritically as a malevolent presence, she needs to have subtleties and a fully-realised character.

Even as they are moving in, Matt (Adam Brody) and Larissa Kane (Amanda Crew), notice someone staring at them from a window next-door. They wave, make an off-hand comment about the neighbours not being too friendly, and then laugh it off. However, Larissa begins to suspect that the neighbours might be a little more sinister when she startles Isabelle’s mother Ann (Sheila McCarthy) when she is staring into space at her mailbox. Larissa starts bleeding profusely and Ann is bizarrely slow to react. When she gets back from the hospital after her son is stillborn, Larissa is plagued by Isabelle’s unrelenting gaze and things swiftly degenerate from there.

Additional details are added. In two separate internet research scenes, both Larissa and Matt find the same news website that details how Isabelle’s father tortured her because of her condition and tried to offer her up to Satan. After Larissa falls from a second-floor window, Matt jumps to the conclusion that she might be possessed, apropos of almost nothing, and despite the Kanes having no obvious religious fervour he goes off to get Father Lopez, the chaplain from the hospital Larissa was taken to.

Many of the film’s issues stem from the characters being severely underwritten. A God-fearing neighbour who vows to pray for Larissa after finding out that she has had a miscarriage turns out to be nothing more interesting than a kindly well-wisher. Larissa’s sister comes to visit to try and comfort her, although why she didn’t come immediately after finding out about the death of her nephew is never addressed or acknowledged. Matt’s cop father Clifford also pops round for some hand-wringing, and conveniently stands in when the police are called so that no other law enforcement characters are needed. Writer Donald Martin has a wild selection of TV movie credits to his name, from The Craigslist Killer (2011) to Murder, She Baked: A Chocolate Chip Cookie Mystery (2015), and Isabelle has the same perfunctory plot development and limp characterisation as a Hallmark Channel early afternoon thriller.

These paper-thin cyphers could be overlooked if Larissa and Matt were a solid, believable couple. Their relationship is the crux of the film’s tension and the way they deal with the loss of their son would be enough to sustain an entire narrative. Unfortunately, they are just as indistinguishable as the secondary characters. Larissa is a piano teacher who plays the piano just once, and Matt is a lawyer who is seen shuffling paper at his office a couple of times. Other than that, they have no interests and no friends. The only thing we learn about Matt over 80 minutes is that he really likes chocolate cake with cream icing. All they do is talk about their relationship and whether Larissa is really being haunted by the girl next-door or if she is just having serious grief issues.

Sadly, Isabelle is stylistically flat too. It feels like it was hacked down to get it to 80 minutes, as the scenes in the first act all run into one another, speeding by in quick succession to get to the supernatural elements that are the film’s primary hook. The restrictive location of the Kanes’ new home could be used effectively, but it never looks like it has recently been moved into and seeing Larissa lying in bed with a full face of make-up becomes repetitious quite quickly. Director Robert Heydon is a veteran Canadian film-maker but horror is clearly not his forte or his passion. The jump scares are unoriginal and uninspired. Malevolent spirits glimpsed in the reflections of mirrors and towering at the end of beds have been seen uncountable times in far more interesting circumstances. Easily the worst decision, however, was to give Isabelle glowing red CGI eyes. They look comically cheap and seem to have been used only to signify a plot point towards the end of the film.

Essentially, Isabelle is presented as a disabled person whose only dream is to be inside Larissa’s able body and take over her life. Aside from its weakness as a plot generally, because the film is so thoughtlessly written, this idea comes across as offensive and merely a device to sustain the threat of possession throughout. If the concept was engaged with and analysed, it could be provocative and challenging, questioning generalisations of disabled people and the tragedy of wanting something which you can never have. Using a person with spina bifida, even one with a Satanist father as an unambiguously insidious being isn’t really acceptable and Isabelle needs a properly developed back story to be a character or even remotely frightening. It doesn’t work as a portrayal of grief, either, and even setting aside all of the underlying and worrying implications of the plot, as a horror film, it doesn’t scare, surprise or entertain.

Isabelle will be available on digital platforms from September 30th.