In the midst of an isolated farm, a mother is murdered in a house and a father is washing his hands of blood before he loads up his gun once again.
Now the father hunts after his daughter Ella, who eludes him and takes off into the woods. As the father follows her deeper into the forest on an increasingly mad quest, though, the tables start to turn.
Starring Anthony Head from TV’s beloved classic series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” writer/director Dan Gitsham’s horror short — co-written with James Driver — offers a subversive, stylized take on the Red Riding Hood story, complete with strikingly rich and textured cinematography and a restless, edgy approach to storytelling. Fairy tales are said by some to be the original horror stories, with their seemingly arbitrary yet archetypal violence, and “Ella” both works within the genre’s classic conventions and subverts its norms with horror and arthouse stylings.
The writing and storytelling are pared down and often elliptical, and with its jagged, fractured structure, the narrative doesn’t offer much exposition, preferring instead to throw the audience in the midst of an intense, mysterious situation.
The action, however, is clear. The excellent craftsmanship is deft and adroit, tantalizing viewers along with breadcrumbs of information, a spare but effective sound design and score and the father’s own propulsive drive to find Ella. The background of the family is never fully explained, though the construction of the story’s pieces seems to suggest madness, isolation and a family struggling deeply with some kind of secret.
The film’s excellent performances also go a long way to add to both the ambiguity and mystery of the story. Those accustomed to Anthony Head’s paternal, kindly role of Giles on “Buffy” will enjoy his more menacing, sinister role here, as well as recognize his trademark subtle depth and innate charisma. By the time he reaches Ella, we see just what he has been grappling with, making his final moments all the more haunting and tragic.
Excellently crafted and powerfully haunting, “Ella” clearly is inspired by the story of Red Riding Hood. But it leverages the quicksilver nature of cinematic craftsmanship to constantly subvert audience expectations. By the film’s end, we wonder who is the Big Bad Wolf and who is the innocent wandering lost in the woods. By the film’s end, what emerges is a much more complex, layered and sadder story that initially suggested — one whose ending lingers and echoes like the strange, surreal stories of old, which gestured at the inner darkness of the world, both around and within us.