Christopher Smith is rapidly building a name for himself as a writer/director capable of giving a few twists to the horror thriller genre. His 2004 chiller set in an abandoned tube station Creep may have been fairly run of the mill in many ways but it gave us a genuinely strong female lead in the figure of Franka Potente and along with the setting, allowed it to at least partially stand out from a growing crowd. He followed this up with the slightly more polished Severance two years later, which gave the bloody plot of a team building weekend in the Eastern European wilderness a skewed blackly comedic angle. Now, with his third film as director and writer, Triangle he moves slightly to add yet another slant on the horror thriller genre by adding the element of mystery.
The story is straightforward enough, at least to begin with. Jess (played by Melissa George - ageing viewers will no doubt remember her from the Aussie soap Home and Away amongst other more notable recent Hollywood outings such as 30 Days of Night) is a single mother attempting to get ready for a leisurely boat trip with friends. She seems a little out of sorts, but she is clearly stressed by her rushed efforts to pack and care for her autistic son. By the time she arrives at the dock she is visibly discombobulated, but this is dismissed as a side effect of tiredness. The voyage begins and all is well until a storm brings with it the wrecking of the boat and the need to be rescued. From out of nowhere steams a large ocean liner, The Aeolus, and their salvation is at hand...or is it?
The ocean liner turns out to be deserted in a manner reminiscent of the Mary Celeste, and there are no clues as to the whereabouts of the crew - all that becomes apparent is that these shipwrecked visitors may not be alone and their ship mates, whoever they may be, aren't exactly friendly. At this point you would be forgiven for thinking that there was nothing original to be offered here. Films that have centred around strange goings on aboard derelict ships have been widespread and ghost ships have littered stories on page and film alike for an age. The twist which Smith attempts to throw in is that of mystery. This may sound fairly commonplace but when you assess films that have placed this into their horror plots the general questions posed are “who is attacking us?” and “why?” What Triangle does is take these basic elements and move into a realm that requires the viewer to assess the information available to them and make up their own minds as to what the real threat is and whether there are any true answers to be gleaned from the experience. This is something that is thrown before both the viewer and the central character of Jess at the same time, thus heightening the tension as we are forced down this rabbit hole of confusion in tandem with Jess, unaware of the perimeters of logic that dictate the various situations she finds herself in.
If I sound vague in my descriptions it is merely because I don't wish to spoil any of the experiences that the twists and turns have to offer an attentive audience. The tricks used by Smith are clever in part, yet lack a certain amount of subtlety in their execution. The central principle is not as original as the director first thought, with it being a wonderful piece of narrative bending used in a personal favourite of mine, the 1945 classic Dead of Night. Anyone familiar with that period chiller will immediately feel at home with the puzzling premise set forth by Jess's plight that we are confronted with about 40 minutes into the film's duration. Far from this familiarity being a negative though, Smith seems to have woven a fabric that either borrows or pays homage to numerous films from various decades that have used similar plot devices to confuse and thrill. The state of confusion that surrounds proceedings is reminiscent of many titles such as Memento, The Machinist or even Cronenberg's Spider. Once the question of the self is raised I'm sure many older viewers might think of the Roger Moore psychological drama The Man Who Haunted Himself, and as mentioned, Dead of Night showcased what Smith assumed to be a new and novel idea some 60 years beforehand. Perhaps the piece of cinema that this owes the most to though is the Stanley Kubrick classic The Shining (something the director readily admits influenced him greatly). Once all is said and done, the questions raised in Triangle are very similar to the aforementioned benchmark of intelligent supernatural thrillers.
Triangle works not only as a decent horror but also as a mind bending trip into the psychological and fantasy thriller genres. Christopher Smith attains a level of intensity by having a pared down cast and setting. The vast majority of the action surrounds Jess and maybe one or two characters at a time, though rarely in the same frame. Being set aboard an ocean liner gives the perfect backdrop to the weird and wonderful happenings that are twisting the mind of our protagonist. This anxious tension wanes a little when we are led into watching past events from a different perspective. It is to the film-maker's credit that any degree of momentum could be found in a story that retreads the same events merely from other angles, and is able to keep our attention, but there is still an uneven balance in some segments. This is in many ways the classic haunted house story, with the land based dwelling being substituted for a vessel at sea. The sense of isolation is brought on as not only an exterior force weighing upon the mind of Jess, but also an interior emotion driving her on as she wants to see her son again. Once again, these elements throw up obvious comparisons to The Shining, with the emphasis being upon the central character's frame of mind and whether any of this has a basis in reality or not.
The film starts out as a fairly unassuming, low key thriller that you'd be forgiven for assuming had more than a passing resemblance to the many Bermuda Triangle stories that have been told down the years. A vessel caught in a storm and strange goings-on do little to dispel these fears of a run-of-the-mill genre piece. A quick change of pace and more than a splash of claret soon brings with it an altogether darker affair that is not only more unsettling than its mystery horror roots, but also far more cerebral. Triangle is not without its flaws though and to highlight it as an example of precise complex story telling would be wrong, as not only is that not its aim, that is not where its strengths lie. Both the films mentioned time and again as influences on Smith give for fairly unfavourable comparisons. Memento skewed a linear narrative by telling it in a non-linear manner, but had the form of absolute cause and effect logic that has to be the backbone of any such tale - anyone who has watched that film's scenes in their chronological sequence will know how much of the magic was conjured up in the editing process. Smith makes small nods to this to-and-fro information drip-feeding but never integrates it in such a manner as to make it essential or even necessary to the whole experience. The Shining is closer to the mark of the director's aims, being that it revolves in large parts around the fracturing of a mind that is already fragile. Once again though, the emulations of Kubrick's master class of unsettling cinema are just that - emulations. The labyrinthine corridors lack the budget to show us a true maze and the imagery never strikes with the same tempered subtlety.
Triangle is an enjoyable ride that needs to be viewed with the correct expectations and without too many unreachable comparisons held against it. It was never meant to be a puzzle that could be solved, rather a riddle that would require its audience to meet it halfway. The logic that Christopher Smith has struggled to put in place almost carries it the duration, but a couple of minor points let it down. It was always going to be a hard task to create something truly original, and this almost manages just that. It borrows heavily from many films, whether knowingly or not, yet still maintains enough fresh twists to keep your attention. The fact that it can be read in numerous ways makes it ideal for those who look for enigmas, complete with their flaws, rather than those who require loose ends to be tied up in an understandable way. It hints at a level of intelligence that it never really has a grasp of, yet I found myself still captivated by the plight of Jess. At its core it is a claustrophobic tale that lets the viewer decide whether the answers lie in reality or psychosis and as such demands a second viewing. It isn't perfect, but if you have always hankered after a slick modern feature length Twilight Zone as I have, then the tortuous corridors of The Aeolus are sure to float your boat.