THE ISLE / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: MATTHEW BUTLER-HART / SCREENPLAY: MATTHEW BUTLER-HART, TORI BUTLER-HART / STARRING: CONLETH HILL, ALEX HASSELL, TORI BUTLER-HART, FISAYO AKINADE, ALIX WILTON / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
The temptation in making a small-budget horror film must be to go all-out on the gore. Fake blood is relatively easy to make, and there are dozens of willing would-be make-up artists out there who will lend a hand to your production for a credit on a resumé. The problem is, unless you go absolutely all-out, the end result is never going to be particularly memorable. It’s far trickier, but ultimately more rewarding, to create a sense of unease, with the scares coming from what you don’t see, from what you feel, and the makers - husband and wife team, Matthew & Tori Butler-Hart - of The Isle should be applauded for taking this approach for their tale of a mysterious island and the inhabitants who appear trapped there.
Set in 1846, and filmed on the picturesque island of Eilean Shona off Scotland’s north west coast, The Isle opens with three sailors, survivors of a shipwreck, washing up on the shore of a seemingly deserted island. They are met by a friendly local, who brings them inland and finds them shelter until a boat from the mainland arrives. As the hours tick by, though, they begin to wonder if that boat is ever coming, and find clues that throw a dark light on the island and its few remaining people.
The film’s small budget did extend to hiring some experienced hands, and Game of Thrones’ Varys, Conleth Hill, brings a brooding intensity to his role as a senior islander. The shipwrecked trio – The Miniaturist’s Alex Hassell, The Girl With All The Gifts’ Fisayo Akinade, and Penny Dreadful’s Graham Butler – are personable enough, and the story inveigles sympathy out of the viewer for their plight. The film is for the most part well-acted, but there are elements of Am-Dram that leak into the more supernatural scenes, probably more through budgetary and time constraints than limitations on the ability of the actors.
If the film has one drawback it’s that it does not take advantage of its beautiful Scottish location by borrowing from local Celtic legends, instead weaving a tale from Greek mythology and the sirens when selkies or merrows would have been equally, and more fittingly, useful for its narrative ends.
The Isle is an evocative period piece with a genuine sense of unease, which makes the most of its location and is a welcome addition to the British ghost story canon. The Butler-Harts have created another gem, and you have to wonder what they could do with a bigger budget.