The Sun on Her Face
In his book Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman famously wrote about the film industry that, “Nobody knows anything.” In large part, that’s true. Everybody knew Mel Gibson would always be one of the biggest movie stars until he wasn’t. Everybody knew the DCEU would be able to compete effectively with the MCU until it couldn’t. For that matter, everybody knows that the MCU remains the eight hundred-pound gorilla until they have a couple of flops.
One thing that’s been mostly true for a long time is that if you want to break in, make or write a horror movie. Why not a comedy? Because humor is culturally dependent and doesn’t tend to travel well globally. What about action? Maybe, but it’s a genre that tends to be outlandishly expensive.*
Horror is different. It’s one of, if not the most, flexible genres of film. You can make a slasher movie, psychological horror, a creature feature, the list goes on. Horror movies also don’t need insane amounts of money to be effective. Sure, World War Z had a ludicrous budget of $190 million, but movies like that are more outliers. To make a good horror movie, you need a decent premise and good timing.
As a result, low-budget horror is undergoing a boom right now. Cheaper technology makes it less expensive to create, and streaming services are ravenous for new content. I like a horror film that uses budgetary limitations to its advantage, one that meets the challenge with nerve and creativity. That’s why I liked Isolated.
The man driving the white van is Edgar (David Solomon Abrams). To look at him is to see someone who wouldn’t be out of place in an insurance office or a tech firm. The only peculiar habit he’s got is his way of eating half of a Swedish fish and then idly flicking away the other half. It’s a habit that feels equally practiced and irrational.
The woman in the room is Nell (KateLynn E. Newberry). She wakes up and takes stock of her surroundings. The room is about the size of a generous dorm room. Three of the walls are concrete and the fourth is constructed from drywall. When Nell looks up, she can see a skylight window. Beyond the skylight, stars blaze in the blackness. She’s locked in and she has no idea how she got there.
It gets stranger. All Nell has with her is a length of rope and a smartphone. While there’s no cell service (because of course there isn’t), the phone has a picture of a woman and a single song. Both have significance to Nell, though what that significance is, I cannot say. Sometimes the lights go out, plunging Nell into darkness. Other times the lighting shifts to a greenish tinge.
Nell hears noises in an air vent and quickly discovers she’s not alone. In another room is a man, Travis (Lanny Joon). He may or may not be trapped, may or may not be on Nell’s side, and may or may not be losing his mind. Nell also can’t help but notice an LED timer on the wall, and that it’s counting down.
Director Tyler Lee Allen presumably didn’t have too much to work with beyond a handful of sets and locations.** He’s clearly aware that low budget doesn’t have to mean “cheap looking,” and he utilizes effective sound design, claustrophobic camera angles and solid pacing to create a movie that feels pricier than it actually is. Isolated zips along, creating a feeling of mounting dread. Allen doesn’t waste time with jump scares or waste money on gore gags. He relies on film craft, and in the end, that’s all he needs.
One of the more satisfying cinematic experiences I have is when a smart horror movie creates expectations and then proceeds to subvert them. Writer Michael Ferree sets up iconography right from the start with the man driving a white van and a woman imprisoned in a room. We’ve seen other movies so we think we know what kind of a story this is, and subtly, Ferree pulls the rug out from under us with intricate plotting. However, Ferree knows that if we don’t care about the characters, then the plotting doesn’t really matter. He spends a good amount of time showing Nell’s behavior, and through that, we learn about her.
The cast is tiny, and at the end of the day, the film really only focuses on one actor. That would be KateLynn E. Newberry as Nell. She’s not a woman who’s ex-Special Forces or a criminal profiler. She’s a regular person and she responds to her irregular situation the way you’d expect. Some of Nell’s decisions ain’t great. Others are more inspired. She gets scared. She becomes determined. She gets very, very angry. Newberry’s performance is natural and well-rounded, and I wished that Lanny Joon had been given the same room to work as Travis. I get that it’s not Travis’ story, yet too often it feels like he’s only allowed to explore a few sides of his character.
Isolated doesn’t reinvent the wheel. Luckily, it doesn’t have to. Tyler Lee Allen, along with his cast and crew, pulls off a twisty little story about survival and identity. After the film ended, I didn’t wonder what kind of a Star Wars movie they would make or what characters they could introduce in the MCU. All I cared about was them telling another story their way.
*Though not always. El Mariachi originally cost a little over $7,000. After director Robert Rodriguez sold the American distribution rights to Columbia Pictures, an additional $200,000 was spent on post-production work. It remains a creative and fun action movie that cost less than a million dollars.
**Isolated reminds me more than a bit of the very good surreal horror film Cube. While I have no idea what the budget for Isolated was, I learned that Cube cost only $350,000. Costs were kept down by repurposing the same set and using different lighting.