Dan’s cow is obviously in a good deal of discomfort. The cow, being hugely pregnant, is giving signs that it’s ready to drop its calf soon, but something just isn’t right. Orla, the attending veterinarian, decides to delve into the poor cow to see what the problem might be. While she’s elbow-deep, though, something inside the offending womb grabs ahold of her. When she manages to extricate her arm, she discovers that she’s been bitten on the hand.
Billy O’Brien’s queasy rural horror film Isolation has a lot of moments like that. Though set in current times, its sensibilities hearken back towards the ‘bio-horror’ movement of the late ’70s and early ’80s, right down to its radical-science premise: Dan (John Lynch) and Orla (Essie Davis) have both willingly accepted money from rogue geneticist John (Marcel Iures) in exchange for his being allowed to inject a couple of Dan’s cows with a new form of growth hormone. It’s all intended for the benefit of humanity, but these things, of course, never turn out well.
The problem, as it first appears, is that the fetuses are developing too fast, which would explain the unhappiness of the cow in the opening scene. Other problems eventually manifest, though, and while I wish to avoid giving away the whole gambit, the scenario recalls the early work of David Cronenberg cross-pollinated with Ridley Scott’s Alien. If you know the sources from which this film draws, then you’ll presume that the ick factor residing within this film’s DNA is extraordinarily high. Your presumption would be correct. This may be the ickiest film I’ve seen in many a moon.
O’Brien lets you know where he’s coming from right off the bat (not every film opens with a woman shoving her hand up a cow’s vagina) and spends the majority of the film toying with the audience’s sense of propriety. He exploits our discomfort and mistrust of unseen biological processes and the mystery of The Other, effectively building a horrific atmosphere where eerie things can and do happen. The “miracle of birth” is twisted into nightmare fodder here; there’s an early scene involving the too-large calf that is supremely creepy, and the later stages of the film are heavy on the bovine innards (for related reasons). Among other things, Isolation will make you think twice about eating beef for a while.
His parceling-out of information about the exact nature of the threat, too, is well-handled. The situation comes into focus only gradually, and often the viewer is as much in the dark as the characters. Robbie Ryan’s murky cinematography is an asset in this respect; many times, certain things are not seen as clearly as they should be, which accentuates the otherworldliness of said things. (Most times, the menace appears to be comprised exclusively of meat and teeth.)
Things do eventually become clearer (the familiarity of the story’s tropes become more evident the longer it goes), and once this happens the film does experience a drop in quality — rather than being an exceptional all-around horror flick, it devolves into simply a first-rate creature feature. I wish I could say the climax wasn’t a little of a letdown, seeing as how it’s infused with a sickening sort of claustrophobia, but it’s been done before. O’Brien does try to keep the audience off-balance even in these late stages through shifting around his character sympathies. How often, for instance, is it in films of this ilk that the scientist character’s ruthless methods for containing the threat turn out to be the correct way to proceed? (The late-stage encounter between John and Jaime (Sean Harris), a young man temporarily squatting on Dan’s property, packs a wallop.)
Isolation, it turns out, is no more than the sum of its influences. It has no new ideas. Having said that, there’s a certain satisfaction in seeing traditional ideas expressed so vigorously. O’Brien may not be original, but he knows whose footsteps in which to follow, and he knows what makes you uncomfortable. It’s his job, as a horror filmmaker, to find those uncomfortable points and jab at them repeatedly with a sharpened stick. On this count, he succeeds.
(Note: Isolation is currently undistributed, though Lion’s Gate International provided the funding. Here’s hoping they bring it Stateside.)