Directed by Billy O’Brien
Isolation is a distinct and classy horror film that does the genre proud. It’s an Irish fright flick set on a remote farm where fertility experimentation is being done on cows. Like a lot of manmade bio-messes, the intent of the project seems strictly production related; more fertile cows, more meat or dairy products for the masses.
Fortunately, the concept doesn’t trail off into sanctimonious lecturing about not messing with Mother Nature. The lead characters (I’m pretty sure they’re a couple) are presented as smart and empathetic individuals who have gone into the bovine experiments with a reasonable moral perspective. They’re contemporary independent farmers; this is their business, they need to eat, and business is slow, so they’re doing it. Nothing freaky is happening so far.
Before long we’re in the barn with Orla (Essie Davis), who is in the midst of helping a cow give birth. She dons an arm-length protective plastic glove and reaches deep inside the rear end of the cow to try and grab the hooves of the calf. In a shocking and unsettling scene, she recoils in horror after something cuts her hand from deep inside the mother cow. Her partner Dan (John Lynch) takes her to the kitchen to put antiseptic on her bloodied and wounded hand.
Enter a young couple in a campervan who decide to settle in on the edge of the farmland. It seems they’re on the lam, from what we don’t really know. Dan tries to shoo them away, assuming they must be squatters or troublemakers. This all changes when Dan is able to recruit the young man from the trailer to help finish the bovine birthing job with him in the barn.
And again, a nasty incident happens in the process of the cow giving birth – part of Dan’s index finger is literally bitten off, and we’re given a glimpse of the carnage in graphic detail. On top of that, something is seriously wrong with the calf that they manage to yank out – it’s pregnant. The ensuing mayhem is a direct result of this birthing, and it’s not long before all hell is breaking loose on the farm.
The head scientist in charge of the fertility project returns and tries to quell the outbreak of nastiness, fearing that any breach of the farm’s perimeter by man or beast could unleash a devastating plague on the world. What follows is a rural hybrid of ideas from The Thing and Alien with a dash of Cronenberg’s Rabid thrown in.
In some ways this film was an extended exploration of themes hinted at in the scene from Rabid where Marilyn Chambers wanders into a barn and curls up with a cow. That scene had an incredibly strange atmosphere – you had a beautiful woman seeming to affectionately bond with a farm animal with near-bestiality overtones, while in truth she was using the spiked probe in her armpit to consume the beast’s blood and infect it with rabies. Isolation explores comparable themes of science vs. nature and the catastrophic outcome of crossing the wrong lines. It features somber drama and empathetic characters stuck in a cold and nightmarish farm location, and there are several atmospheric moments comparable to the abovementioned Rabid scene where the connection between man and these gentle animals feels sad, strange, and slightly nauseating.
The farm setting is captured in a surprisingly atmospheric manner; this is intelligent horror that manages to incur fear in the least likely of source creatures and backdrops. The opening credits are striking; they consist of simple views through worn fences and aged barnyard wood that flash to red textural variants with an orchestral/string score that will chill you to the bone. The first few minutes of the film set the tone perfectly for the alternately uneasy and jolt-inducing ride to follow.
I was really impressed with the cast in this film. Everyone felt credible, well developed, and realistic. There was none of the power-babe factor or Hollywood good looks to cripple the suspension of disbelief. Every single actor was excellent. The atmosphere of Isolation is so cold and damp it almost smothers you. The fact that the characters are forced to ward off the menace with only the most rudimentary weapons makes things particularly tense – the strongest implement on hand is a bolt gun used to slaughter cattle. It looks like a hand-held power drill; the end fires out and into the brain stem and kills instantly. The drawback is that it has zero range, so you’d literally have to be right next to your target for it to be of any use. When the bolt gun is brought out and used, it’s heavy duty – the sound design as it thwacks into action is grueling and ear shattering.
Isolation is a great film that shifts effortlessly from brooding and dramatic darkness to edge of your seat action. It’s a slow burner, but when it kicks into high gear, it’s a fierce ride with plenty of heart-stopping jolts.
Don’t wait until the cows come home to see Isolation!
4 out of 5
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