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There’s nothing quite like an old-fashioned ghost story. In cinema, however, their traditional format has become familiar to the point of boredom. When a fresh take on supernatural, atmospheric horror comes around, it’s a rare gift, usually coming to us from the festival circuit. A gem crafted in this spirit recently premiered at TIFF and screened at the Sitges Film Festival. While its recourses are slim, the Halifax-based production The Crescent uses them to create one of the most chilling films I’ve seen this year.

Seth Smith’s second feature follows a young mother, played with endearing honesty by Danika Vandersteen, who moves into her family’s seaside house after her husband dies. Enigmatic occurrences and strange locals hint at a supernatural threat, but the truth is even darker, leading to a psychological nightmare as the mother seeks to protect her son—if her grief doesn’t devour her first.

This kind of setup could have gone down a frustrating road, but Smith’s earnest imagination and unusual sense of story keeps it surprisingly fresh. The pace is slow, but Smith uses the time to develop character and emotion. Vandersteen’s subdued performance gives the film heart, while the young Woodrow Graves is utterly adorable, winning the viewer over through his personality alone. Because the characters are so believable, it is difficult to deny the horror when it creeps from the depths.

Though the performances are stronger than one expects from horror, the artistic style is what elevates the film. Smith makes the most of his unusual location through chilly camerawork and the constant presence of the sea, via sight or sound, while the surreal sequences show his true gift for portraying concepts through visuals. Pools of swirling paint depict an underwater cosmos through which phantoms emerge, and the supernatural manifestations work because they’re simply bizarre. The synth-based score is beautiful but unsettling, often blasting across the screen with transcendent effect. Whether building atmosphere or acting on immediate danger, Smith doesn’t release his autumnal grip.

Smith’s vision harkens back to DIY classics like Carnival of Souls, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and The Iron Rose—simple “what if” scenarios brought to fascinating life by an experimental style and subtle approach to scares. These films have a limited audience due to their deliberate pace; and by the time the story ramps up, some might find it too familiar anyway. The ending is slightly too long, certainly, and favors blunt explanation rather than enigma. Smith’s film is earnest, though; it never feels as if he’s attempting to elicit a response or trick the audience. This gives the film a true heart that lingers along with the chill after the film concludes.

While its pacing and unusual style may not satisfy every viewer, The Crescent offers an honest and effective approach to the classic ghost story. Seth Smith proves that he is a voice to watch here, evoking the independent spirit of Romero and Hooper in his own frightening manner. His earnest experimental vision pairs with a narrative that unravels with honest creepiness and melancholy. Smith reminds us that even a limited filmmaker can create wonders with their resources; and that those wonders can haunt us beyond the confines of fiction.

Movie Score: 4/5

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In case you missed it, check here to read more of our coverage of the 2017 Sitges Film Festival!

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