The Maine winter is closing in on Mary Portman, played by Naomi Watts. She's a child psychologist trapped in her house during a Maine winter storm, with only her son, catatonic in a wheelchair, and what may be a ghost, maybe the ghost of a deaf child who disappeared into a storm rather than be moved from his current home. What could go wrong?
As it turns out, lots could. Shut In has a beautiful set-up: a lovely clear winter day, and Mary's husband is taking their son, who has been expelled from school, away to a boarding school, seemingly against his wishes, and hers. It's a great open for a horror film, more like Ordinary People or The Ice Storm, and the cold beauty of the house in the Maine landscape is a perfect backdrop, an invitation for something bad. Sadly, those films of family angst turn out to be more thrilling than this one. No sooner perceived than the trip goes bad, and Mary is a widow, and forced to care for the 18 year old, who as it turns out is her step-son, and is now in a near vegetative state. She's exhausted, she's having sleep problems which include awful dreams, and her empathy is tested to its limits when she tries to 'rescue' the deaf boy only to have him run away into the winter night. She starts to hear noises behind the walls, and even her own therapist-by-skype (Oliver Platt) can't help her find her bearings.
Now the perceptive among you will be able to anticipate exactly where this is all going, and the film-makers are happy to prove you right. It reminded me of the 'strange tales' pulps of the 30s, where such situations always turned out to have very rational explanations, which were never very satisfactory. That is problem enough, but the real problem is the film is unable to generate much tension, which is a shame because you can see what appealed to Watts about the role: the chance to play independent adult woman, to show empathy, and to react to horrific violence. But the film's big reveal is wasted, Oliver Platt finds it hard to decide whether he's playing it straight or not, and Charlie Heaton, who projects overtones of Anthony Perkins, too early and often, is just too much of a one-note psycho to make the rest convincing.
It's easy to poke holes at the Maine which is too cold to go out in, but in which no one's breath seems to condense, and gloves appear optional. What's more telling is the real psychological fissures get lost in the most mundane of terror tropes.'Put down that axe and let's talk about it'. Literally. There is also an element of sexual tension and repression which is hinted at obviously, but never actually manifested, and that could have been the real horror, particularly if they hadn't retreated to the step-son gambit. So it's odd to see Watts start the movie with a full role she clearly relishes, and at one point seems to be headed toward Catharine Deneuve in Repulsion, winds up being mostly helpless-babysitter-who-will-always-make-the-wrong-decision, a la Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween. The conversion is so total, that in the film's coda she is totally unconvincing playing normal mother heading into the Maine adoption centre. Watching Watts throughout the film I kept hearing her name as 'Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,' instead of Mary Portman. To see the oddness of that final scene, which seems shot in a different stock to the rest of the film, makes it a weird coda which woke me up more than almost any off the horror which preceded it.
Shut In directed by Farren Blackburn, written by Christina Hodson
starring Naomi Watts, Charlie Heaton, Oliver Platt
Released on DVD and Blue Ray 10 April