“Our memory is a more perfect world than the universe; it gives back life to those who no longer exist,” goes the text quote (from Guy de Maupassant) which opens Wyvern Hill.
Memory plays a key rôle in Jonathan Zaurin’s feature. The first words uttered by its sixty-something heroine Beth (the excellent Pat Garrett) are “I don’t remember”, as she chats to her husband Ken, who is half-asleep as he waits for her to rejoin him in bed. Except that Ken actually passed away a few months earlier, and Beth has been left to face alone not only her grief, but also the early onset of Alzheimer’s. When Beth finds family friend Sue (Katy Dalton) and Sue’s husband Jeff (Oliver Robert Russell) waiting downstairs, you can see the look of open terror cross her face as, for a brief moment, she has no idea who these uninvited guests are or what they are doing in her house. Meanwhile her condition keeps bringing Ken and eventually others (even her younger self) vividly to life before her eyes, even though they are not there. As Beth’s condition deteriorates, she will end up selling the property and moving with her beloved daughter Jess (Ellie Jeffreys) and Jess’ boyfriend Connor (Pete Bird) into the large rural dwelling known as Wyvern House that she has helped them buy. There she will slowly but surely lose her grip on reality and retreat further into idealised memories, archetypal fantasies and childhood nightmares, even as those whom she loves slip away from her increasingly vacant mind, one by one.
All this domestic drama, and the very specific Herefordshire setting, may make the film feel as though it is occupying the same sort of terrain as a British soap – and indeed screenwriter Keith Temple (who also plays Ken) has previously written for TV’s Emmerdale, Casualty, Heartbeat, Crossroads and EastEnders – but there are other genres, all introduced in the prologue, that circle Wyvern Hill, entwining themselves into the environment like the monster of the title. Firstly, we hear – and eventually see – a mysterious woman (Ayvianna Snow) who keeps telling Beth children’s stories about dragons (and wyverns) – stories which link up to local legend, and so bring a layer of resonant myth to the film’s naturalism. Secondly, we see a figure in a basement using drills, buttons, screws and cables to do unspeakable, irreversible things to the bodies of bound captives, as a news report plays on a television in the background reporting the discovery of ‘several dismembered bodies’ and speculating that “we may even be dealing with Hereford’s first serial killer”. Indeed, if you watch the impressionistic images in this ‘torture porn’ scenario closely, you can discern that the killer is attaching wires to the hands of one of these bodies so as to fashion a human puppet. This suspicion appears to be confirmed in the opening credits sequence that follows, as all the sadistic knockabout puppetry of Punch and Judy is not only shown staged as a show, but also presented in the form of cut-out animation, making it doubly removed from reality. Beth will later tell Ken – or at least the Ken who is still alive in her mind – that as a kid she had a ‘recurring nightmare’ in which she was ‘chased by a Mr Punch puppet.’ Now it would seem that her childhood nightmare has violently returned to stab, batter and bludgeon, one after another, everyone she cherishes, and to transform them into mobile husks that she barely even recognises any more.
Wyvern Hill is a film of contrasts. Its grounded human story plays out in parallel to a gorily vicious slasher scenario. Sunny countryside vistas sit alongside interiors lit in artificial blues, reds and yellows (like in a giallo). A macabre table setting – which rivals the dinner sequence from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) for its horrifying grotesquerie – is offset in the end by a far more salutary, idyllic barbecue scene. And the reality of what we see is always undermined by Beth’s unreliable focalisation, so that it is hard to be sure whether we are witnessing a real (if crazed) home invasion, or the mercilessly cruel encroachment of dementia into Beth’s own fading interiority. There does seem to be someone outside, and eventually inside, leaving a trail of brutalised bodies in his wake – someone who has insidiously followed Beth from one address to the next – but Zaurin’s careful editing highlights the irrational spatiotemporal connections between these scenes (often ending on Beth’s confused face), leaving the suggestion that the unwelcome intruder may be little more than an embodiment of Beth’s addled, alarmed psyche as it gradually unravels.
In other words, while Wyvern Hill plays out like the nastiest of slasher films, just strip away the genre elements, and it also has much in common with Florian Zeller’s The Father (2020) – an insider’s hallucinatory account of the existential panic that accompanies the loss of memory and the dissolution of identity. It is ultimately for the viewer to decide just how much of the film’s atrocities is actually taking place, and how much is a mere puppet show staged for and by an increasingly infantilised mind. This a choice between two very different kinds of horror.
Strap: In Jonathan Zaurin’s psychological slasher, a confused widow faces a coordinated home invasion from both early-onset dementia and a crazed killer.
© Anton Bitel