March 29, 2016

REVIEW: LORD OF TEARS (2013)

Every so often, a trailer for a new horror film materializes from the æther and whets my appetite for something a bit different than what you might consider ‘typical horror film fare.’ One such trailer appeared in my news feed circa early to mid-2013, a micro-budgeted flick called Lord of Tears. Everything about this trailer grabbed me: the frenetic camerawork, the dark visuals, and a mysterious figure known as the ‘Owlman’ lurking in the periphery. Needless to say, I was pumped to see the movie the first chance I got, and after a few years of searching for a viable copy, I finally laid eyes on it. Read on for my thoughts!

Lord of Tears is a 2013 Scottish horror movie directed by Lawrie Brewster, written by Sarah Daly, and stars Euan Douglas, Lexy Hulme, Jamie Scott Gordon, and David Schofield as the voice of “The Owlman.” The film is Brewster’s directorial debut and was funded mostly through a successful Kickstarter campaign. It has the distinction of winning two awards at the Bram Stoker International Horror Film Festival, the Audience Award and Best Female Lead for Lexy Hulme’s performance.

The film opens with James Findlay (Douglas), a school teacher who is attending the reading of his late mother’s will. Though they became estranged many years ago, he is bequeathed two properties; a small home in which his parents resided, and the abandoned mansion where he lived with them as a child, of which he has no memory. He also receives a letter which his mother wrote for him shortly before committing suicide, imploring him to understand that their estrangement was for his own protection, and that he must never enter the mansion. The letter states that, as a child, he was terrified by a mysterious figure, something which frightened him so badly that he attempted to drown himself.

Unable to recollect these events himself, and beginning to have strange nightmares that he can’t explain, James is understandably shaken. He goes to his mother’s house and begins sorting her possessions, and while sifting through a box, discovers a photograph of himself as a boy standing next to a woman, but her identity is unknown, as the photo has been torn down the middle, leaving only the woman’s legs visible. He also finds a drawing he made as a young boy depicting a terrifying creature with large eyes and long talons for fingers; the image frightens him half to death.

James decides to seek advice from his friend and colleague, Allen (Gordon), who we learn has a father that is in very ill health and may go at any time. After their discussion, James decides to move into the mansion to try and piece together his fractured memories. On his first day there, he meets a lovely American woman, Eve Turner, who lives in the revamped stables on the property; over the course of the film, their friendship blossoms into a sweet romance as she tries to help him solve the mysteries of his childhood. As this is all going on, James also experiences recurring visions of the terrifying figure from his drawing, a menacing figure dressed in a suit with an owl’s head and long, talon-like claws.

Together, James and Eve go through his father’s old journals and unearth vital clues as to what went on at the mansion when James was a child; they discover a map which details a series of underground catacombs beneath the house, leading to a secret pagan altar; they also discover several Biblical references to a pagan god named Moloch, who demanded the sacrifice of children in exchange for bestowing blessings. Through this, they ascertain that James’s parents practiced pagan worship, but the rest still remains enshrouded in mystery.

James happens to be looking out of the window one day when he sees the Owl Man standing next to a large tree near the house, pointing toward it. James rushes outside and, feeling compelled to dig at the foot of the tree, discovers a time capsule he buried there as a child. When he opens it, he is horrified to discover the other half of the photo from his mother’s house, showing that the woman standing next to him all those years ago was Eve, his nanny, unchanged in appearance over the decades. This causes his memories to come flooding back; it was he who was supposed to be the sacrifice for Moloch, who manifests himself as the Owl Man, but out of love for their son, his parents were unwilling to go through with the offering. Instead, they hired an orphaned American girl, Eve, as James’s nanny and then murdered her. Unfortunately James, who had loved the girl, walked in on his father committing the horrendous act and had a mental breakdown. This, along with frequent visitations from Moloch, lead to his hospitalization and his estrangement from his parents.

James confronts Eve and tells her what he knows, unable to believe what he has just learned; this causes Eve, or rather her ghost, to regain her own memories of being murdered by James’s parents and causes her to change into a malevolent spirit bent on making James suffer for what happened to her. He flees from the mansion but Moloch is waiting for him, causing him to mysteriously end back up at the dark house every time he tries to leave. Refusing to go in, James finally collapses in exhaustion against a tree in the yard, afraid for his life as he watches Eve’s ghost grin menacingly at him from an upper story window.

Left with no other choice, James enters the house. He is attacked by Eve again that night and flees from her, all the while taunted by Moloch, who explains that he must free Eve’s spirit if he wishes to live a little longer.

James flips through one of the many journals his father wrote, finds the map, and heads down into the catacombs with Eve in hot pursuit, and comes upon the pagan altar upon which his parents placed Eve’s skull. He takes the skull and gives it a proper burial on the grounds, apologizing for what Eve went through. The next morning, as he leaves a flower on the dirt mound where the skull was buried, he glimpses Eve leaving the property, bags packed and walking down the road. He calls to her and she looks back, regarding him with bitterness before walking on, leaving James to whatever his own fate may be.

Finally able to leave the mansion, James sets out for home, desperate to once again get away from the mansion and forget all the horrible things he’s experienced. As James awaits the train, he pulls the journal page with the map of the catacombs from his pocket and reads his father's writing on the reverse side, which states, “each one in time shall be replaced, for in the shrine, a skull must sit, lest Moloch’s wrath be felt.” As the train approaches, James throws the piece of paper into a trash bin and prepares to board.

Back at Allen’s, James regales the tale to his friend over drinks, and Allen is visibly troubled by the story. James states that his parents should have submitted themselves to their own fate rather than murder a poor, innocent girl with her whole life in front of her. Allen posits that James’s mother deserved a chance to live, but James counters that this should not be at the cost of another human life. Just as James finishes his drink, he remarks that he feels incredibly hot, and heads to the bathroom, intending to splash some water on himself to cool down.

As he walks down the hall, however, it is apparent that something is wrong with James; he is having more and more trouble staying on his feet, and by the time he enters the bathroom and collapses to the floor to see the tub slowly filling with water, it dawns on him only too late that Allen has drugged his drink. Allen enters, tears streaming down his face, and admits that Moloch visited him, promising his father’s full recovery in exchange for the sacrifice James’s parents promised to Moloch decades ago. He heaves James’s near-paralyzed body up into the tub, holding him under the water as James slowly drowns. Behind them, Moloch stands silently in the corner, watching.

The next day, Allen heads to the hospital to pick up his father, who has had a miraculous recovery. His joy is short-lived, however, as he ponders the consequences he must now live with. Meanwhile, back at the pagan altar in the catacombs beneath the mansion, James's skull is now prominently displayed, having taken the place of Eve's. Roll credits.

Lord of Tears is an impressive movie, given what it accomplishes on such a tiny budget; with the aid of an owl mask and a few cheap, in-camera effects, Lawrie Brewster is able to craft a film that is completely capable of causing a chill to run down the spine. It is fully reliant on story and character for the heavy lifting, blessedly limiting the jump scares to a few simple, effective ones. It succeeds tremendously at creating a palpable sense of dread that grows throughout the film. The musical score is the film’s greatest offering; the only way I can describe it is as a full, symphonic compendium to Henry Cowell’s The Banshee, one of the most unnerving and eerie pieces of music I’ve had the pleasure of hearing.

The film is not without its faults, though they are certainly minor in comparison. The interplay between Euan Douglas and Lexy Hulme feels forced at times, and serves to sway the atmosphere of the film too far in a direction that ultimately detracts from the mounting horror. There are scenes where the acting doesn’t feel quite as genuine as it could, resulting in what end up being slightly lackluster performances by almost all parties involved. Lastly, the scenes in which Eve becomes a vengeful ghost are drawn out far too long, and what starts out as genuinely frightening quickly dwindles into something that might elicit unintentional laughter. I have a feeling that these may be the issues to which Fearnet’s Scott Weinberg referred in his review of the film as “typical indie-style missteps.” In short, filming a few more takes with the actors and tightening the editing could have elevated this film to an even higher plateau, but what we got surely isn’t bad by a longshot!

And that’s my review of Lord of Tears. If you’ve been lucky enough to see this obscure little gem, be sure to tell us your thoughts in the comments below!