Neverlake attempts the holy grail of postmodern horror film: to unite the supernatural and the modern into a single narrative where one reveals the other. Despite focusing perhaps too much on “atmosphere” at the beginning of the story, the movie creates compelling supernatural narrative within a very modern plot.
The plot centers on a young English-Italian girl, Jenny, who goes to visit her semi-estranged father in the Tuscan countryside. A self-assured young woman who spends most of her time with her nose in a book, Jenny begins having visions of the supernatural connected to a nearby lake. As her father relates, this lake has been used for three millennia by Etruscans to commemorate their dead… and possibly, much more. The plot then develops in parallel between Jenny’s exploration of her thoroughly modern and dysfunctional family, and her deepening learning about the ancient lake with the help of a nearby group of children recovering from mutilating injuries. During the process, Jenny needles her father for more information about her Italian mother who died when Jenny was very young.
While the word “atmosphere” sometimes takes on a connotation of euphemism for boredom with a soundtrack, it does not fully take on that role here; the movie develops slowly and in retrospect, this is less necessary than the filmmakers thought and probably more intended to lull us into submission. That is an error because the wide pans of the lush Italian countryside tend to do that quite effectively. The first third of the movie sometimes lapses into atmosphere pieces that achieve less than their screen time; instead, a more plausible use of screen time would be to give us more of the geography of the house in which Jenny and her family is living, of which we see two rooms, which becomes disorienting later. The plot is cryptic but not “clever” in the sense of handily tying up a bunch of quirks into a plot that technically makes sense but slips too far beyond known reality to be interesting except as a kind of mental party game or hypothetical conjecture. Sadly, the film is blighted with a title that seems like a broken neologism and film posters that, at least in the US, make it seem as if this movie were about combat with lake-zombies. That poster served to simultaneously attract people who will hate this movie and exclude the people who would enjoy it. It deserves a second look.
Neverlake builds its tension on a solid plot and a mystery that enmeshes its different parts with one another to make a kind of self-referential maze. It reinforces this with music that intensifies the atmosphere and cinematography that brings out the isolation of its characters. The music fits within a strange zone between soundtrack, Dead Can Dance with no solo vocals, and some of the more recent ambient neofolk material. Although written using modern instrumentation, it captures an ancient feel, clearly familiar with both Carmina Burana and Ancient Airs and Dances. Keyboard symphonic music without solo vocals or consistent drumming gives this film the spacious air and gravity that it needs, where throwing in the usual alt-rock B-sides as many horror movies currently trend would have savagely trashed the atmosphere. Cinematography also reinforces the mood; the filmmakers opt for a dense, saturated scene with wide contrasts in color, allowing the lake to dominate like a gleaming life-form and to show people as somewhat washed out, empty and terrified. They do this without over-processing and thus ruining the lush natural detail.
The script for Neverlake strategically builds to a conclusion which is as intense as the earlier part of the film was vacant. This balance seems intentional, just perhaps miscalibrated. Daisy Keeping creates a simultaneously disingenuous and headstrong Jenny who stumbles perfectly into the role set for her by the script, while more mature actors manage to combine creepiness and standard postmodern adult vagueness and incoherence into a single mode, which makes them both comfortingly background and potentially complicit. Combined with the intensifying music and intensely naturalistic filming itself, the plot development helps create a sensation of slipping beyond the modern and known into a world of the ambiguous and threatening, which is then explained through the modern — but questions remain. For those who like a good horror film that is more internal existential and moral terror than chainsaws and centipedes, Neverlake provides a powerful escapist fantasy.