Fantastic Fest 2015: Osgood Perkins' Quietly Disturbing Film 'February'
by Jeremy Kirk
September 27, 2015
"Hail Satan." Those two words put together create an unnerving feeling for anyone who sees – or hears – them regardless of one's own personal, religious beliefs. Just the thought of the Devil's presence emits an air of discomfort that horror films have been riding for nearly century. That same level of unease - and that troublesome, two-word phrase - haunts every scene of Osgood Perkins' feature debut, February. Told through disjointed chronology, Perkins's film is difficult to piece together as you're watching. The unsettling and atmospheric results that remain after February has ended and left the viewer are undeniable, though.
Perkins' film cuts between two stories. In one we are introduced to Kat (Kiernan Shipka of “Mad Men”), a young woman at an all girls boarding school whose parents haven't picked her up for a long, holiday break. Along with Rose (Lucy Boynton), another student who is stranded over the break, Kat remains in the relatively empty school, an acceptance of her loneliness. There is, however, something else that roams the hallways of the school, an evil presence that may have already made itself known to Kat.
Playing out concurrently is the story of Joan (Emma Roberts), a young woman who is travelling the snowy roads on foot. She accepts the kindness of two, strange adults (James Remar and Lauren Holly) who are headed towards the small town where the boarding school resides and travels with them. That air of discomfort hanging over everything that plays out is about to turn into full-fledged terror for everyone involved.
The editing in February, which Perkins also wrote, is arguably the film's biggest flaw. There's little sense of chronology, especially in the early scenes when the characters and setting are being established. Perkins' intention in this may be to drive that unsettling atmosphere into the viewer's mind even deeper. More often than not, though, it results in a frustration that's present before the film gets to it many, subtle revelations.
February isn't a film that holds the viewer's hand. There is a certain level of sifting through clues and connecting of dots for yourself that makes reflection on the film all the more rewarding. Some of February's esoteric developments are easily crackable, an element that puts the viewer a few steps ahead of Perkins' screenplay. This aspect may very well be the filmmaker's intention, but the chronology of the film as it stands implies something else.
Despite this, the events in the film play out with an unquestionable sense of dread, Perkins infusing every scene with disquieting atmosphere that makes you uneasy sitting in your seat long before any real, horror developments play out. The film's low, resonating score provided by Elvis Perkins, brother of the writer/director, has its own strong hand in building the distress and dark ambiance of each scene.
Perkins' handling of his actors, particularly the film's three leads, is also on solid ground. Shipka's downcast turn in the early moments is nearly as strong as her latter scenes. Even though we aren't quite sure of the source of the film's impending dread, the young actress creates her own brand of discomfort with every, casual smirk she gives the open air beside her. Roberts, too, supplies a level of unease in her every scene, an aspect to February that may show its hand a little too much.
Oddly enough, February may be a film many criticize as the events found within are playing out. Perkins' pacing, aided by editor Brian Ufberg, may cause more disgust than outright terror, and the film's finale cuts to black before certain, expected revelations are given. However, like the subtle, disturbing denouements of recent, horror classics such as Kill List, the pieces of Perkins' puzzle are there waiting for the audience to put together themselves. That final cut to black may resonate negatively with horror audiences, but the answers that remain make February an experience that's just atmospheric and disturbing enough for fans of the genre to seek out.
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