British writer-director Christopher Smith is rapidly proving himself to be one of the most consistently interesting and diverse genre practitioners of recent times. His first three outings showcase a filmmaker with an obviously deep love of the Horror genre — their wide-ranging scope of reference indicating a mercurial and inventive mind, actively engaged in extending the genre's breadth and reach. Although he hasn't yet made an out-and-out classic, Smith is increasingly looking like the most promising English language contender for doing so. The director's debut feature "Creep" (2004) was a fast-paced, gory modern-day monster movie set in the clammy sewers of the London Underground, which brought a tight-coiled suspense to old school horror tropes; while its follow-up, "Severance" (2006), was a mordant comedy-horror take on some of the nastier xenophobic themes to be found lurking within the likes of the ubiquitous, torture-based horror of films such as "Hostel", with a wry comment on war and nationalism bubbling up between all the bloodied dismembered limbs and brutal violence. 2009 saw an unexpected left-turn into psychological horror and suspense with the inventive, mind-bending thriller "Triangle", now getting its DVD and Blu-ray release in the UK from Icon Home Entertainment. It's probably the Bristol-born director's greatest achievement so far. Built around a show-stopping performance from gorgeous Australian actress Melissa George, the film pulls off the almost alchemical feat of combining the format of a taut, suspenseful thriller that never lets up, with the kind of puzzle-box narrative warp and weft one more usually associates with the work of David Lynch (Christopher Nolan's "Memento" and "The Prestige" would seem to be obvious recent reference points as well). The genius of the whole enterprise lies in how Smith manages to forge a streamlined popularist drama that feels satisfyingly conclusive at the finish, but which still retains a sense of mystery and ambiguity as the end credits roll — leaving the audience to make up its own mind about much of what they have seen, but without wimping out on the need to provide a logically tight resolution, at least in spirit.
The story centres on a a harried single mother, Jess (Melissa George), who cares day to day for her chronically autistic young son. She drives off to the harbour one day to go sailing off the coast of Miami on a luxury yacht, with a close male friend and a few other acquaintances, perhaps to escape the exhaustion and worry of her life for just a few hours. But the glass smooth calm of sun-dappled blue waters is suddenly blackened by a raging storm of almost Biblical proportions, that breaks upon and capsizes the boat, leaving Jess and the other survivors clinging to its upturned wreckage. Out of the dazzling bright haze, a vintage 1930s Ocean Liner mysteriously emerges; it looks abandoned, although a silhouetted figure appears to be peering down at them from the main deck. The friends climb aboard and explore the dimly-lit corridors below. But soon, very strange things start to happen; someone seems to be following them about below deck, only fleeting glimpses of them caught in mirrors — and Jess is all the while haunted by a weird sense of déjà vu.
Oblique messages scrawled in blood on a cabin mirror and a murderous hooded figure in a boiler suit soon add to the mystery and terror, and death is not far away ...
The obvious difficulty in reviewing such a structurally intricate film — as has almost certainly been pointed out in every review you have read of it so far — is that revealing too much of the plot risks ruining the experience for future audiences, not so much because there are twists (though there are) but because of how Smith's screenplay is so expertly constructed, deriving many of its well timed effects by constantly manipulating the audience's expectations. This is one film about which critics should say as little as possible. (I can't believe just how much is given away by some of the early reviews of the film, which I read up on, thankfully, only after completing this piece).
There is a rich tapestry of film reference at work even in the striking visual appearance of the movie, much of it almost subliminal at times, but all helping to subtly lead the viewer in certain directions, and facilitating the planting of assumptions that often turn out to be very wide of the mark. The seasoned genre viewer will spot winks to many classics dealing in similar themes though: "Carnival of Souls", "Dead of Night", "Lost Highway" and many, many others. This kind of labyrinthine puzzle-box structure can be done badly or sloppily at times, but here Smith always keeps his narrative moving ever forward (at least from the audience's perspective), tightly meshing a series of increasingly delirious and surreal set-pieces that somehow manage what must have been the almost unfathomably difficult task of leaving you with a story that is, in the end, simultaneously an unnerving psychological portrait of the central character's possible madness, grief and/or loss (much of this is down to Melissa George's terrific performance — she's never been better.), and a smart, relentless, suspense-filled thriller, both these accomplished with the film seemingly never having relinquished its torrid pace for once single minute. Recently, only the French film "Martyrs" has been as astute in its clever manipulation of audience expectations — although, I hasten to add, they are otherwise very different types of movie! But If you want to understand exactly how Smith pulls it off, then you'll have to see the film, because I'm saying little more about it!
"Triangle" comes to Region 2 DVD (a Blu-ray version is also available) with a fairly pleasing transfer that retains the rather bright, semi bleached tone of the original movie, while the dimly lit Art Deco interiors of the cruiser manage to avoid many of the aliasing artefacts that often plague such transfers. A robust 5.1 Surround Sound audio track is provided, that serves the film's often inventive sound design of rumbling, below deck interiors very well. The disc also comes with a serviceable retinue of extra features that do a good job overall of giving you a vivid portrait of the making of the film and the ideas that inspired it.
The traditional "making of" documentary included on the disc turns out to be quite an extensive forty-minute look at the film, from its initial inception (Smith coming up with the basic idea at Cannes during the promotion of "Creep") to the realities of bringing such a complicated concept to the screen on a relatively low budget, dependent on grants from the National Lottery and the UK Film Council. The main cast are interviewed at the top of it, giving the usual unnecessary summery of the character you've presumably just been watching them play for the past ninety minutes — followed by Smith explaining how he almost drove himself mad trying to map out the film's mind-bending plot threads. There is an interesting insight into Smith's influences at one point, with the director citing "Last Year in Marienbad" as a key conceptual influence, especially in one shot relating to the use of a mirror. The producers and the film's production designer are also interviewed, the latter mentioning "The Shining" as a reference point for the classic Art Deco look of the interior of the cruise ship, one of the former citing Christopher Smith as the British equivalent of Quentin Tarantino in terms of his encyclopaedic knowledge of genre film.
It turns out that financial troubles and lack of time forced Smith to cut corners on the realisation of one of the movie's key sequences when it became apparent only during shooting that the set could not be completed in time. Finally, Smith and beautiful lead actress Melissa George give their interpretations of the film's semi ambiguous conclusion. All-in-all, this is a cohesive and well put together overview of a rather clever and enthralling little film. Smith is on hand again to provide a solo commentary track, which proves to be a very informative examination of the ideas that inform the film, the possible interpretations he was aiming for, and an explanation of how the rich ocean-going look of the film was achieved almost entirely in the studio on some fairly small sets. Lone commentaries can be a hit-and-miss affair, but Smith proves more than able to keep the comments flowing, with there being precious few seconds of dead air to be scrolled past. Negligible deleted scenes (an extended storm scene that implicates Jess in the yacht's demise, and an extended dialogue sequence between two other main characters) are included, as are three storyboards that reveal the elaborate extent of Smith's planning; while, finally, a five minute featurette about the visual effects design of the Storm sequence from the movie also reveals that CGI effects played an even greater role in giving the film an open, spacious look during the many ocean-set sequences, than is immediately obvious.
An excellent presentation of one of the standout films from last year is also enhanced by the thoughtful inclusion of 'Hard of Hearing' subtitles and a descriptive audio track for the blind. Chris Smith is apparently about to unleash yet another new direction on UK audiences with a Medieval period tale full of necromancers and the living dead, that stars Sean Bean and is to be called "Black Death". "Triangle" makes it three-out-of-three so far for a director who always seems to be going from strength to strength. "Triangle" is a must-see for all fans of offbeat horror thrillers.