Isolation (2005)

Isolation first published by Film4

Summary: Billy O’Brien’s barnstorming feature debut is a surprisingly sombre nature’s revenge flick set on an isolated Irish bog farm.

Review: According to a theory espoused by Gary Larson and amply demonstrated in his The Far Side cartoons, any scenario becomes funny merely by the inclusion of a cow or two. Which is what makes Isolation something of a miracle. For while, like Conor McMahon’s tongue-in-cheek Dead Meat (2004), it is an Irish horror movie exploiting contemporary anxieties about mad cow disease and the dangers of overzealous genetic modification, there is nothing funny about this debut feature from talented new writer/director Billy O’Brien – a deadly serious affair that somehow turns even bovine mutants into objects of irony-free terror. 

Dan (John Lynch) cuts an isolated figure. Living by himself on the dilapidated bog farm that he has inherited from his father, his wife has long since disappeared, his brief relationship with the vet Orla (Essie Davis) is over, and he does not even have a telephone. Yet Dan is not entirely alone: Orla still helps out with the animals, a scientist named John (Marcel Iures) occasionally turns up to carry out genetics experiments on bovine fertility in a rented outbuilding, and the fugitive traveller Jamie (Sean Harris) and his black girlfriend Mary (Ruth Negga) are illegally encamped on the edge of the property. And, as Dan will soon learn during the difficult birth of a calf one night, the farm has another, altogether more unwelcome visitor that will soon threaten the livestock, the five humans, and even the world beyond – if, that is, it cannot quickly be isolated. 

On a remote farm, man is, it seems, the warmest place to hide, and no-one can hear you scream. Which is to say that, with its few characters facing a rapidly evolving monster in a confined setting and unsure whether they can trust each other, Isolation is unmistakably the hybrid offspring of Ridley Scott‘s Alien (1979), John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) and the early body horror of David Cronenberg. Still, if O’Brien’s feature debut comes off as unashamedly derivative, at least he is drawing his inspiration from the genre’s acknowledged masters, and even in their esteemed company he proves more than capable of holding his own. For he has crafted a claustrophobic, increasingly icky chiller that is just as horrifying for its underlying ideas (about genetic interference, miscegenation and childbirth) as for the more visceral shocks that it presents on screen.

To avoid the potential absurdities on offer by having a deformed cow foetus as antagonist, O’Brien has taken great care to ground everything in the grimmest sort of realism. The farm that constitutes the film’s principal location is no picturesque croft in some sunny dale, but a grey industrial complex where atmosphere seems to have been permanently caked on along with all the mud, slurry and shit. By observing the mundanely bloody business of calving with the kind of detail more usually associated with a documentary, the film’s early scenes carefully prepare the viewer for the more speculative biological horrors to come. And then there is that deep, dark earnestness, expertly conveyed by the cast, that immunises the whole production against the uninvited infection of laughter. 

Indeed, in Isolation, less is undoubtedly more. The spareness of the script and the uniform understatement of the performances make the characters, and accordingly their predicament too, seem all the more believable. The low lighting and Robbie Ryan’s tight camerawork keeps us constantly on edge at the thought of what might be lurking just round the corner. Adrian Johnston’s simple score sends a chill down the spine from the film’s very opening scenes. And, most importantly, the creature, when it is shown at all, is seen only in fleeting, shadowy glimpses, leaving us to find our own greatest fears in the primal ooze of the imagination. 

Verdict: What it lacks in original plotting it more than makes up for in bleak atmosphere, natural performances, and the rawest, most visceral kind of terror.

Anton Bitel