The Waterhouse

The Waterhouse (2023)

The Waterhouse had its world première on Friday 27th Oct at the Halloween FrightFest

The Waterhouse opens with a wake. Not the kind that follows a funeral, but rather the kind left by a boat. For Eric (Alan Calton) is aboard a ferry, looking back at the messy churn in its trail, like someone hoping to leave turmoil and trouble behind him. In fact he has just participated in a heist – the theft of a painting worth £40 million – and, keen to put some distance between himself and the scene of the crime, is racing to a remote location where he has arranged to reconvene with his three fellow criminals. Next we see him driving a country road at speed with a big red bag at his feet and a gun by his side – a picture of determination and business-like efficiency. He parks his car by another in the middle of nowhere, methodically changing the plates and cleaning away any fingerprints, before heading off on foot to the rendez-vous point – an isolated house where the rest of the film will unfold.

Eric may be on land, but the water with which the film started is never far away. For the house sits on the coast, looking out over a long stretch of abandoned beach, and the audible susurrations of waves form a complicated soundscape with Edward White’s score of choral female vocalisations, like Siren calls from the depths. Viewers will naturally infer that this rental hideout, all chintzy décor and Seventies stylings, is the waterhouse of the title, given its proximity to the sea beyond – even if that title will eventually come to accommodate other resonances. 

The house is also the locus of a mystery. For before being joined by his boyfriend Matt (Dominic Vulliamy) and Paul (Michelangelo Fortuzzi), Eric discovers on the shoreline a pool of blood alongside the canister containing the priceless painting and a bracelet belonging to their fourth partner-in-crime, Matt’s mother Denice (Corinne Wicks), who herself fails to show up. No one knows where Denice is or what has happened to her, and paranoia and mistrust fill in the space left by her absence. It does not help that Eric has been seeing Denice on the side in a betrayal of her son’s trust, and that Eric’s Oedipal status as literal ‘motherfucker’ – in one of several motifs borrowed from classical mythology – is known to Paul. The salty air is filled with deceit and infidelity.

Paul (Michelangelo Fortuzzi) in flashback at a port, with a hint of myth in his background

Denice’s disappearance may be strange, but there is something even stranger going on here. For objects thrown into the sea keep impossibly returning to the house’s interior – and the three men, in different places about the house, each hear a voice, enter a trance-like state, and snap out of it some time later standing on the beach, with no memory of how they have got there. Before they can work out what on earth is going on, a trio of women will turn up – Opal (Lara Lemon), Pixie (Lily Catalifo) and Noé (Sandrine Salyères) – washed ashore after their boat ran aground. As the men desperately try to conceal the real nature of their stay in the house, the three women will spend the night drinking and flirting with their male hosts, and playing games designed to disentangle truth from lies – in a setting where myth is lapping up against reality.

Men, women, paintings and mirrors, as the frame is set for three art thieves

In this littoral locale, fugitive criminals find themselves confronting not just the opposite sex, but elements from an altogether different genre, in a motif that begins with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and spreads through features as disparate as Ribert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Til Dawn (1996), Paul Andrew Williams’ The Cottage (2008), Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo’s Livid(2011), WW Jones and Luke Skinner’s The World We Knew (2020) and Matthias Hoene’s Little Bone Lodge (2022).

Yet as something supernatural keeps washing in from the waters beyond, and even comes with its own rushing POV shots like the demonic entity in The Evil Dead (1981), this feature debut from writer/director Samuel Clemens (son of the late, legendary screenwriter Brian Clemens) keeps confounding the viewer’s sense of what is being watched. For this might all at once be a psychodrama, as men are undone by their own treachery and guilt on a long, increasingly dark night of the soul; or it might be a classic haunted house story, as an empty residence, once inhabited, brings out its own hidden evil; or it might be a creature feature, as an aqueous Ancient Greek legend assumes an entirely modern form; or it might even be, as art historian Matt ought to grasp, a case of life being overtaken by art, with these men being punished not just for but by what they have stolen, in a realisation of painted myth. 

No matter how you read it, though, this impressive calling card offers an overwhelming assault on the senses, and its heady ambiguities, playing out between solid land and fluid ocean, may well keep you struggling to see, let alone to rationalise, the bigger picture. Accordingly, The Waterhouse is an uncanny vessel for horror which, even after the voyage is over and the partially Graecised closing credits have stopped rolling, will still have you looking back over its narrative convolutions and contemplating its wake.

strap: Samuel Clemens’ sophisticated feature debut places a trio of art thieves in a haunted littoral setting buffeted by myth

© Anton Bitel