I love a good haunted house story, one that gets under your skin from the trauma that once plagued the house. There have been plenty in the genre, including The Conjuring and The Others, all giving their own take on what happens when spirits just refuse to leave a house. With this in mind, I was excited to sit down and watch Abandoned, which brings its own take on the genre. Delivering some great moments, well paced scares, and a protagonist that is slowly coming unglued, it had all the makings of a great entry in the genre, but some story missteps hold it back, leaving only a serviceable spooky tale that never quite hits the mark.
Sarah (Emma Roberts) and husband Alex (John Gallagher Jr.), look to start a new life for themselves and their new infant son Liam in the country. When they find a stunning old farmhouse, they feel this is their chance to start again, giving Sarah a break from the stress, and Alex a chance to work as a vet for the local farmers. While everything seems exciting at first, there is something wrong with the house.
With a mysterious neighbour (Michael Shannon) barging in, and a traumatic history related to the house leaving a sector over the new family, Sarah steadily loses touch with what is real and what is in her head as the odd happenings plague her every waking moment. From things going missing, to strange apparitions, the grasp on reality is frayed constantly until there is no clear picture of what is really happening.
“Abandoned keeps the audience questioning, never giving a clear picture of the sanity of Sarah or what actually happened in the house…”
Feeling very much in the camp of ‘elevated horror,’ Abandoned keeps the audience questioning, never giving a clear picture of Sarah’s sanity or what actually happened in the house. With some truly terrifying moments, and some smart use of angles, the film keeps watchers on their toes, giving a skewed view of the house and the happenings within it. The close angles, and often 180 degree rule breaking shot composition keeps the reality of the house and the ghosts in question. It is hard to get a real sense of space during the 102-minute runtime.
Roberts does a good job of capturing a character on the cusp of insanity. With the constant sound of a baby crying through almost all the film, it is easy to sympathize with her as she struggles with motherhood and unearthing what is really going on in her new house. Michael Shannon works as a fantastic addition to the cast, giving an aura of menace and sadness, with no clear picture of just what he had gone through over his tragic life.
The style of Abandoned both works and hurts the overall story. While it does a great job of capturing the loose grip on reality Sarah is struggling with, it also does work to alienate much of the rest of the cast. John Gallagher Jr. is given little to do over the course of the film, with the minor side plot involving pigs feeling an afterthought to the main struggles currently going on at home. The ambiguous passage of time also muddles things, giving no clear idea of how long Sarah has been going through these issues, or what is really at the centre of the problem.
“I wanted to like Abandoned far more than I did.”
There are moments that feel important to the story that were dropped. One involving diapers, working to display the shock and struggle Sarah is going through on a daily basis, feels half finished with little to no payoff to the events during the rest of the film. It feels like scenes were crafted for the shock factor, with little care if they made sense to the film world they are trying to build.
The struggles Sarah is going through feel genuine, and well realized, but the rest of the film around these issues never comes together. I want to get a picture of their lives, their issues before they moved, and a sense of what really happened on the farm, but these answers will never be given in a satisfactory way. There is something to be said for ambiguous endings, but they have to have some basis in what was seen, and work to build out the narrative the filmmaker is trying to tell. Shocking twists and broken reality are great tools, but they can’t be at the cost of the narrative as a whole.
I wanted to like Abandoned far more than I did. There are some great ideas at play, diving into the struggles of sanity, and how the world can simply not make sense at times. But muddled stylistic choices and a confused narrative take away from what could have been a great film. There are two interesting stories struggling against each other, both working to grab the audience’s attention, but neither feels complete enough to work on their own, and what is left is an interesting but confused mess that misses the mark. Horror fans may find something worth their time, but people wanting more from their scary flicks will be disappointed with Abandoned.