It’s the last day of summer, and a young family is enjoying a peaceful holiday in a secluded cabin by a lake. The setting is idyllic and it’s peaceful all around, a picture-perfect memory for father Dylan, mother Max and their young toddler Lily.
But the family’s serenity is interrupted when an abandoned canoe washes ashore. As Dylan goes back to the house to call the neighbors and check if the boat is theirs, the mother senses something amiss, setting off an unexpected chain of events that forces her to confront her darkest fears.
Directing duo Sarah Wisner and Sean Temple’s atmospheric horror short — with a script from Wisner — is less about jump cuts and gore, focusing instead on evoking a sense of menace and disorientation to explore the primal fears that arise when facing the unimaginable.
A commanding use of film language and craft is central to the film’s power, with everything from the ominously muted color palette to the slow, creeping zooms in the static shots working together to create a growing sense of dread. The style is reminiscent of the artful, cerebral films of the 1970s, particularly of Nicholas Roeg’s influential “Don’t Look Now.” Though the stories and thematic ground are quite different, the aim is to use sound, editing, image and music to suggest an increasing fragmentation of consciousness.
As the main character tries to piece together what is happening and what exactly is out there, it’s almost as if their growing anxiety and fear splinter their ability to make coherent sense of an increasingly incoherent reality. The internal tension between keeping it together while everything quickly falls apart is as much part of the arc as the more conventional narrative of figuring out what the proverbial “bump in the night” — or the presence in the water — is. (The film’s title, though, is a big clue.)
Precise, hypnotic and visually striking, “Water Horse” could easily fall into the growing genre of contemporary “elevated horror,” led by filmmakers like Ari Aster and Robert Eggers, which takes the tropes and conventions of horror and twists them to more idiosyncratic, personal and auteurist ends.
By foregrounding the psychological experience of fear over a more conventional approach of unraveling a question, “Water Horse” reminds us that the scariest thing sometimes isn’t the lack of control or the presence of unknown in the outside world, but the untethering of a mind as it confronts a reality that is not what it seems — and is splitting apart at its edges to reveal something unthinkable.