Folk horror in movies has gone through many incarnations – from a boom time in the 1960s and 70s when Hammer were still churning out horror movies regularly. During this period, folk horror reached its peak with The Wicker Man, which still very much defines the genre. Each decade since has brought one or two popular folk horrors; including Children of the Corn (80s), The Blair Witch Project (90s) and more recently, The VVitch. Now, from husband and wife team Matthew Butler and Tori Butler-Hart comes The Isle, which boldly takes on the same setting as The Wicker Man, that of a remote Scottish island. The similarities stop at the setting, however, as The Isle is set in the 19th century and combines Scottish folk tales (selkies) with Ancient Greek Myths (sirens) and more traditional ghost stories.
This film is very much a family affair – directed by Matthew Butler, co-written by Matthew Butler and Tori Butler-Hart and starring Graham Butler and Tori Butler-Hart. This feels fitting for a film which features such a small and isolated community. It starts with a shipwreck and sailors Oliver (Alex Hassell), Cailean (Fisayo Akinade) and Jim (Graham Butler) are stranded on the titular isle. There are only four people remaining on the island – Douglas Innis (Conleth Hill) and his niece Lanthe (Tori Butler-Hart) and Fingal MacLeod (Dickon Tyrrell) and his daughter Korrigan (Alix Wilton Regan). The whereabouts of everyone else on the island is a mystery and the remaining islanders are clearly harbouring secrets. Fingal and Douglas are very keen to keep the women apart, so they don’t speak to one another and they try to keep Korrigan away from the sailors as well.
The sailors explore the island and also seek to escape it – boats are promised but never arrive. They are trapped and start to succumb to whatever evil is lurking on the island. They gradually find out more about the history of the place, through flashback and the nature of the ‘curse’ upon the women becomes apparent. The themes of powerful women being dismissed as mad and also isolated so they can’t “conspire” with other women will resonate with many and is unfortunately still relevant today. The suppression and containment of women and their very real fears and problems being scoffed at as “nerves” are issues which are important to explore from a historical standpoint, but the ramifications to now are clear as well.
The scenery is, of course, stunning and the cinematography by Pete Wallington showcases it well, making the island itself a huge presence in the film. The costume and production design are impressive for a small-budget independent film, skillfully evoking the era and including the details of rustic and rural island life. Tom Kane’s score is beautiful and isn’t heavy-handed in invoking the siren song. The atmosphere is subtly ominous and mysterious, as opposed to out-right scary or even creepy, but that can be a positive thing. Slow-burn Gothic horrors are having something of a resurgence at the moment and this fits well with the likes of My Cousin Rachel, Lady Macbeth and The Little Stranger.
Whereas the best-known actors in the cast are probably Alex Hassell (Suburbicon) and Conleth Hill (Game of Thrones), the most familiar to me is Fisayo Akinade who was in two exceptional Russell T. Davies TV shows from 2015 – Cucumber and Banana, as Dean Monroe. Akinade is certainly one of the stronger actors in the cast of The Isle and I wish he were in it more. The rest of the acting is quite “ITV Sunday tea-time drama” to put it kindly and it’s a shame it doesn’t match up to the other strengths of the filmmaking. The dialogue is also a little cringey at times, but the overall plotting, structure, pace and editing are all good. The ideas are great, the execution just doesn’t quite match up to it.
The Isle is the exact type of independent British movie which should be getting made, released and supported by audiences. It ticks the boxes of many interesting sub-genres; period films (but crucially, not an adaptation – an original idea), horror, the Gothic, folklore, myths, legends and combined with the setting of Scotland and the sea – it makes for an atmospheric and intriguing story. The visuals and the music are both stunning, but unfortunately the acting and the script don’t quite match up to the vast potential of the idea. I’m still interested in where this writing and directing team go next, as they are a talented partnership.