Elfie Hopkins (2011)

Review first published in S&S Jun 2012. Note that the final paragraph of this review was cut from the print version.

Elfie Hopkins

Synopsis: Thorntree Valley, England. Self-appointed village sleuth Elfie Hopkins and her geeky best friend Dylan Parker decide to investigate their new neighbours the Gammons – Charlie, Isabel and twin teenaged children Elliott and Ruby – their suspicions raised by Charlie’s large collection of professional knives (left with local butcher Bryn to sharpen) and some strange nocturnal goings-on. As the Jenkins family leaves on a bespoke package holiday designed for them by the Gammons, Dylan’s research reveals a trail of missing persons left in the Gammons’ wake. Elfie and Dylan chance upon the bloody scene of the Jenkins’ deaths (minus the corpses), and flee as the twins approach. Returning with Elfie’s stepmother Susannah, they find that the Gammons have already summoned Constable Kelly, who has arrested local Michael, known for his grudge against Timothy Jenkins. Elfie’s recriminations against the Gammons are ridiculed.

Elfie deduces from the Gammons’ past missionary work with a Papua New Guinean tribe that they are a family of cannibals, even as the Gammons kill and devour local Pippa – but no-one believes Elfie’s accusations except lovesick Dylan, who sneaks into the Gammons’ garage and discovers human body parts. Ruby captures Dylan but, confused by her own amatory feelings, spares him. Charlie stabs Dylan’s father in front of Elfie, and then the Gammons murder Elfie’s father and Susannah. Now armed, Elfie shoots Elliott and bludgeons Isabel to death. Dylan cuts Ruby’s throat as she is about to smother Elfie. Charlie is poised to scythe Elfie when Bryn shoots him in the back.

Dylan leaves for university.

Review:

“I gave you your biggest case – you’re nothing without me, I MADE YOU!”

Near the end of Elfie Hopkins, anthrophagous patriarch Charlie Gammon (Rupert Evans) shouts these words at the film’s eponymous heroine (Jaime Winstone). The line is both posturing cliché and non sequitur, implying Charlie is somehow the Moriarty to Elfie’s Holmes, or the Joker to her Batman, when in fact he is nothing of the sort – and Elfie, self-appointed amateur sleuth in a sleepy village that does not need one, is hardly the world’s greatest detective either, inspired more by marijuana and guilt over her mother’s death than by any actual crimes. When the exotic Gammon family moves in next door, Elfie inevitably opens a new investigation – but although, even before you can say Rear Window (or Fright Night, or The ‘Burbs, or Disturbia), Elfie’s vague and entirely capricious suspicions are already beginning to look well-founded, they are nonetheless rooted less in genuine skills of detection than in misdirected teen insolence, fantastic (i.e. unbelievable) leaps of intuition, and the blindest of coincidences.

Desultoriness reigns in Ryan Andrews’ debut feature, lost somewhere between the hallucinatory haze of Elfie’s altered perceptions and the shortcomings of the screenplay (co-written with Riyad Garmania, who also collaborated on Andrews’ 2011 short Little Munchkin). Elfie Hopkins plays pass-the-parcel with genre, never settling on a coherent tone, and utterly gutting its chances of keeping the viewer engaged. As a comedy, it leaves broad, cartoonish characters (like Butcher Bryn, played by Winstone’s father Ray) in desperate need of punchlines. As a drama, it limns a traumatic backstory for Elfie that goes nowhere – and it fails to draw complexity, sympathy or even interest from its protagonist’s many flaws. As a satire, it vividly stages the exploitation of ‘dead-end’ rural communities by urban yuppies wanting a taste of the countryside – but does not bite deep enough to leave much of an impression. As a horror, it delivers grotesquerie and gore, but without ever actually frightening. As a detection thriller, it reveals the Gammons’ culpability too early to generate tension, and presents a process of discovery too arbitrary to be satisfying, as its hard-toking heroine sleeps through stakeouts, misses vital clues and generally breaks all the conventions of the gumshoe movie without once lighting upon a better alternative. By the time Elfie has suited up to confront her opponents in full ‘action girl’ mode, narrative integrity has long since been abandoned for meandering pastiche. Nothing here can be taken seriously, and yet none of it is funny either.

The outlandish visuals of Elfie Hopkins do, however, come into their own, from the sepia-toned filtering of the opening scenes to the Gammons’ peacockish costumes and some surreal set-dressing (often shot tableau-style with foregrounded characters facing the camera). If such striking stylization were anchored to a more disciplined script, then the result might be one of which any filmmaker – even a cannibalising one like Andrews – could proudly say, “I made you.”

Anton Bitel