THE BALLERINA ***
Directed by Steve Pullen. Starring Steve Pullen, Deena Dill, Isabella Pullen, Thomas Mikal Ford, Morgan Cryer, Adella Gautier, Paul Stober. Horror/Drama, USA, 101 mins, cert 15.
Released in the UK on DVD & Digital Download by 101 Films on 5th February 2018.
The ‘haunted forest’ backdrop is fast becoming a genre of horror all on its own away from regular ghost stories and THE BALLERINA, the directorial debut of Steve Pullen, is the latest tale where all you need to create a creepy atmosphere is some tall trees, the faint echo of birdsong and a few quick edits to simulate the feeling of being watched, and THE BALLERINA ticks all of those boxes.
It also ticks several other boxes when it comes to the characters and the plot but to reveal where the story goes and what other supernatural movies – and one in particular – it echoes is to say too much, but before we get to the final act and everything that you’ve put down to bad editing and sloppy writing for the previous 70-or-so minutes is finally tied up to make some sort of sense you have to sit through what comes across as a passion project for Pullen – as well as director he is also producer, writer, lead actor and his real life family also appear as his on-screen family – but the passion is projected inwards towards him rather than outwards towards the audience because for the first hour THE BALLERINA is as flat as the woodland landscape it is filmed in.
The story begins with the parents of the Sorenson family having a row before dad Glenn (Pullen) takes his young daughter Sophia (Isabella Pullen) to a ballet show, stopping off on the way but we’re not really sure what for. Fast forward a bit and a now bearded Glenn and Sophia are living in the backwoods of Virginia in what appears to be some sort of homeless community, sleeping in tents and living off the land. Lines are dropped about a failing economy and Sophia demands to walk three hours to see their old home, crying about her lost mother and brothers, and life appears to have dealt the Sorenson’s a bad hand. Sophia has nightmares where what she calls the ‘shadow people’ appear to her and one of them – a girl named Annie – tries to lure her away from her father every night but salvation arrives at the camp in the form of former psychiatric nurse Doe Peterson (Deena Dill) and her two sons, who befriend Glenn and Sophia.
And that is pretty much the whole of the first hour of the film, as Glenn, Sophia and Doe figure out who Annie is and try to help Sophia sleep all through the night without her traumatic visions keeping her awake, and just as the film, which has been fairly slow and plodding to this point, starts to hit a brick wall the full reveal of who Annie is and how Glenn managed to screw up his whole life plays out, explaining how we quickly went from happy(ish) family life to sleeping in a tent in the woods. And then it’s over, you think about it, make one or two observations about how certain things didn’t make sense (a shot of a homeless Glenn sitting in the woods, where there is no electricity, using a laptop does make you question some of the logic) and then wonder what Steve Pullen could do if he was given a budget and had possibly collaborated with someone else instead of doing everything himself.
Aside from the obvious comparisons to another supernatural horror from the past 20 years (cannot say which one as it will give the whole thing away), THE BALLERINA tries really hard to be scary (it isn’t) and create an eerie atmosphere by the overuse of green lights to signify when ghostly things are happening, and with the repetitive nature of the story in trying to establish Sophia’s nightmares it has the feel of a cheap BBC ghost story as those green torches start moving around in the darkness. It also doesn’t help that Sophia is a whiny character and Isabella Pullen has to spend most of her screen time crying and clinging onto her father, something that she does quite well to be fair but it doesn’t make for an engaging viewing experience. However, just as you start to ask yourself where it is all heading something happens to one of the characters and we get to see what happened to Glenn and Sophia when they stopped for a while on their way to the ballet, with Steve Pullen really selling the role of an anguished father having to relive a traumatic event as he is forced to question everything he believed to be real. It’s a hell of a performance from somebody who isn’t really an actor and helps to end the film on the emotional note that it really needed to justify sitting through the cod-campfire ghost story element of the main plot.
Overall, THE BALLERINA is an ambitious film that was assembled as an obvious labour of love for Steve Pullen but its creative and budgetary limitations hold it back from being a whole lot more than what it ends up being. The first hour is something of a slog that begs the viewer to question where it is going, or if it is going anywhere at all, but once it starts to pick up in the final half-hour and you can see what Steve Pullen’s thought process was it becomes an effective human drama rather than the supernatural horror it is trying to be. THE BALLERINA has a lot of heart and given the opportunity Steve Pullen could probably put something together that is a lot closer to the spooky mood piece he likely has in his head. However, THE BALLERINA is not it but the potential is there to see if you stick with it after the grindingly slow and disjointed start.
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