Tension, suspense, and bone-chilling set pieces are scattered throughout the supernatural horror; The Innocents. Directed by Eskil Vogt, this slow-burning psychological thriller opened the 22nd Sci-Fi London Film Festival.
As adults, do we really know what happens within the secret world of children? Outside of our presence, what do they chatter about? Is kindness the norm? Are we lulled into a false sense of security that our children inherently know right from wrong?
Set in a near-empty, sterile urban high-rise housing estate — the majority of the occupants are away on holiday — we glimpse into the lives of four pre-pubescent kids. Often left to their own devices, the children gravitate towards one another, frequently drifting into the nearby picturesque woodlands to discover and explore their mysterious gifts.
The banality of this housing estate contrasts perfectly with the lush woodlands. Cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen heightens the tension at every opportunity, at times dizzyingly so as scenes are composed to disorientate the viewer, literally turning the world upside down.
As the film begins, Ida (played brilliantly by Rakel Lenora Fløttum) and her autistic sister are seen moving into the estate. An unsettled upbringing from the challenges her parents face raising an autistic child, Ida manifests a cruel streak that quietly shocks. We see her tease, pinch and neglect her older sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad) with impunity, or are these the manifestations of her frustration? This uncertainty only adds to the horror that unfolds.
The initial playfulness, though pockmarked with cruelty, normalise the oncoming violence. Over the summer, boredom and isolation fuels their frustration. Telekinetically tossed bottle caps are swapped for stones, that are swapped for rocks hurled in anger; tree trunks snap under the mounting tension of their anger.
Central to the foursome is Ben (Sam Ashraf), a child neglected by his mother. We watch him roam the estate as an outsider, yet he cuts a beguiling figure. Easily teased, he is too young to befriend a group of football-playing teens, Ben and Ida soon form a friendship. Ida seems at ease with the casual violence with which Ben behaves. Unflinchingly and matter-of-factly, the camera illuminates their interactions, making us — the passive adult observer — complicit and powerless to intervene. Emboldened by the increasing power of their gifts, the violence starts to spill outside of their foursome unit.
Eskil Vogt’s direction is assured, naturalistic and draws convincing performances from children who dominate the narrative. Vogt maintains tension at a constant simmer, allowing it to boil over to terrifying effect. The antithesis of Petite Mamam, which similarly explored supernatural child’s play. The Innocents will sit confidently alongside other child horror gems, where a child’s world is beyond our understanding or control.
The Innocents is released May 20th in cinemas and on digital platforms.