Fantasia presents Glasshouse; book festival tickets here.
Over the past year, there has been no shortage of pandemic themed films. However, it would be fair to say the quality of these has varied dramatically, from the interesting but flawed Songbird to the dire Final Days and the divisive Tyger Tyger. The problem with many of these pandemic themed dramas, thrillers and horrors is their inability to dig into the psychological effect of a pandemic. Instead, they often opt for tried and tested cliches rather than digging into the real human experience in all its complexity.
So does Kelsey Egan’s new movie Glasshouse offer us anything new, creative and different? The answer to this is yes, but this is not through traditional horror, infected zombies or science fiction. Here we have a melancholy, quiet and sombre debut feature laced with themes of isolation, survival and hidden desire. Its narrative, rooted in the human ability to redefine and redraw the very boundaries of family, place, and purpose. Its majestic yet isolated Glasshouse, a dystopian Noahs Ark where rules and mythologies are created, only to be rewritten in the name of survival.
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Kelsey Egan’s film pays homage to the beauty of late 1960s and early 1970s folk horror. While at the same time offering us a story that feels like a long lost M.R. James novella. Therefore, to label Glasshouse as a pandemic horror is a disservice, as this is as much a ghost story as it is a pandemic themed folk horror. The present, haunted by the past, as memories fade and mythology takes control. Here, each character feels trapped between reality, fantasy and the ethereal. The result is a mix of biblical and folk-inspired horror, drama and mystery, our characters’ choices, desires, and emotions, trapped in a serene yet horrifying Garden of Eden.
In the middle of a barren, desolate world, an ark of life sits nestled among the trees; the Glasshouse. There, an ageing mother (Adrienne Pearce) cares for her family, protecting them from the infected invaders who seek to bathe in the serenity of the grounds. Her older girls, Bea (Jessica Alexander) and Evie (Anja Taljaard), caring for the younger Daisy (Kitty Harris) and cognitively impaired Gabe (Brent Vermeulen). Here, the family is protected from the memory wiping virus in the air: their garden, an ark of vegetables and fruits that they care for while wearing protective masks. Those who dare enter the grounds quickly butchered and turned into fertiliser to ensure the families survival.
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However, the family unit is not complete; their older brother, missing following a journey outside of the grounds months before. And therefore, when an injured and mysterious man (Hilton Pelser) appears wearing a face mask, Bea takes him into the safety of the Glasshouse despite the objections of Evie. But, who is this mysterious new man? And will Bea’s newfound love prove to be the undoing of the family surrounding her? As the stranger slowly becomes a part of the family unit, the girls will forge a new destiny; the cycle of life and death changed as rules are bent and contorted in the name of survival.
Justus de Jager’s soft-focus cinematography bathes us in brilliant whites while equally playing with far darker earthier tones. His lens, reflecting the toxic mix of innocence, violence and survival that haunts the Glasshouse. The ground, a graveyard of dismembered body parts; the vegetables and fruit the family savour bathed in the blood of those who dared to invade their garden. From its opening scenes, the palpable sense of unease is overwhelming, the horror of this silent oasis held in the soil, as the humans in its embrace choose to rewrite, redefine and mythologise their place and purpose as the guardians of the Glasshouse. Their morality and memories, buried as deep as the bodies that lie beneath their feet.
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But, it is within its discussions on isolation, memory and self-created realities that Egan’s film truly shines. Here, although the virus may eat away at the memory, isolation does the same. Each day merging into the next, with time standing still as the family try to define the weeks, months and years that have passed. It is here where Egan’s film talks directly to our current pandemic world. One where we have all experienced time’s ability to both slow down yet speed up simultaneously—our days, flying past while we question what we have achieved in our isolation. Glasshouse asks us to consider the long-term effects of this insular world if it was to become the norm. How would our view of the world change? And would we not develop individual or small group realities utterly separate from the world around us?
In truth, long term forced isolation only breeds and encourages our base animalistic desires and behaviours. The safety of the bubbles we create becoming a home of new laws, rules and damaging social behaviours. We see this daily on social media platforms, where people opt to live a life free from the norms that govern our respect for others. But, imagine this coupled with the end of humanity as we know it, whether through pandemics or climate change; it is here where the true horror of the Glasshouse becomes clear. For here, the Garden of Eden is built on blood, its beauty a mere veil for the rotting roots beneath. Its safety, built on the one truth that we all choose to ignore; humanity’s animalistic desire for survival at any cost and our ability to quickly forget the horror we create.