In the Flashback series our writer Dag Sødtholt is shedding light on interesting and perhaps a bit overlooked films. The presentations will vary in scope. Since they are meant to inspire the reader to seek out the films, the articles and the accompanying images will avoid spoilers.
Lars Klevberg has every reason to be proud of his highly promising debut feature Polaroid. Even though it does not succeed as a whole as a horror film, it is seldom to see a work in this genre with such a refined aesthetic approach, well-thought-out mise-en-scène, and sophisticated, subdued atmosphere.
Polaroid is clearly a labour of love that goes way beyond the call of duty for a “high school horror flick”. Together with another Norwegian, cinematographer Pål Ulvik Rokseth, who also shot the visually refined Late Summer (Henrik Martin Dalsbakken, 2016) – written about here by this author, in Norwegian but the extensive use of screenshots ought to give you a flavour – Polaroid has extensive use of interesting light sources in remarkably dim, but highly evocative images, marked by a painterly and subdued approach to colour in the production design. These outstanding features of the film will be richly documented in screenshots making up the bulk of this article.
In a film about photography, centred on an old cursed Polaroid camera that calls forth a ghost when used, it is highly appropriate that the cinematography is exquisite. The dimness of the imagery is also justified since the ghost can only operate in darkness. The use of the colour red, often signalling danger, is a common device in cinema – think of M. Night Shyamalan‘s The Sixth Sense (1999); that too employs it in connection with ghosts – but it is even more well-founded in Polaroid, since the lighting of a darkroom is red. So we see that these three signature properties of Lars Klevberg‘s film are not merely conceits but arise organically from the specific nature of the material.
This darkroom will play an important role in Polaroid.
Before this article goes on to celebrate the qualities of Polaroid just some words about its failings. The first 35 minutes of the 83-minute runtime (end titles excluded) are excellent. Then it leaves behind its emphasis on atmospheric horror set pieces for a more mystery-oriented plot as its high school characters investigate the background of the enigmatic Polaroid camera. Thus it falls into the same trap as another recent Norwegian-directed English-language horror movie, The Autopsy of Jane Doe (André Øvredal, 2016), which substituted what worked wonderfully – an hypnotic atmosphere of dread and character exploration – with a third act that concentrated on the much less involving activity of explaining what was behind the supernatural events.
In the case of Polaroid, this means that the horror scenes of the second half get kind of shoehorned into the investigative activities, and becomes shorter, with less build-up of dread and less distinctive mise-en-scène. Elements that worked well before, for example the flickering lights and particularly the brilliant touch of the ghost’s icily electrifying, asthmatic breathing, tend to become repetitive, worn-out in a process of diminishing returns.
The excellent Kathryn Prescott, in the top shot in her first appearance, appropriately about to be photographed and captured in a frame-within-frame composition typical for Polaroid.
The heroine, a high school student named Bird, is played by Kathryn Prescott, who is engagingly likeable as well as convincingly vulnerable and troubled. The other young actors, however, seem to be cast on their good looks more than presence and personality. In the first half they are involved in single-character horror situations governed by staging and visuals, but later, the more they are required to interact with each other the more their shortcomings are affecting the experience of the film. In this writer’s opinion Polaroid starts to falter in a scene in the school cafeteria that is a break in style and tone: the sudden daylight setting of the horror, and an overt hysteria and drama that is carried off in a much less convincing and refined fashion than earlier. It must also be said that the nesting-up of backstory plot threads, and the new characters drawn into the plot because of that, are not very involving in itself, with particularly a couple of recapitulating flashbacks coming across as hurried and mechanical.
Although most of the examples in the rest of the article are from the first part that does not mean that all the qualities of Polaroid suddenly vanish – but they are diluted by having to co-exist with the less satisfying aspects. (Due to problems to do with its production company this film, which was completed in 2017, never received a theatrical release but is now available on a German Blu-ray, which can be ordered here.)
This slide show of images demonstrating the film’s pervasive frames-within-frames device also serves as a good introduction to its atmosphere.
The magnificently cluttered, “magical” antique shop where Bird is working.
A highly evocative and atmospheric establishing shot of a house that will lead to important plot developments.
This is brilliant: during an early scene where we realise that Bird’s mother is distant and not always supportive, as she leaves there is a sudden change in visual strategy. The abrupt introduction of a silhouette motif strikingly conveys to which extent Bird feels forlorn, lonely and insignificant.
The motif returns as Bird realises there is something strange with a Polaroid she has taken. Not only is the shot ethereally beautiful but it is meaningful: she has discovered a shadow behind the girl, i.e. a silhouette – a being lurking in the shadows like Bird is withdrawing from the rest of society, and over the course of the film these two silhouettes will be pitted against each other.
In one of the film’s best horror set pieces, where Bird’s co-worker in the antique shop is going through a series of slides, we see something similar: him as silhouette and a shadow in the room.
In addition to the mercilessly onward-marching clicking sound of the slide projector – an echo of the eerie sound when the Polaroid camera takes a picture – the dimness of the room combined with the projector’s piercing light give the scene a haunting distinctiveness, with many otherworldly lighting effects…
…which turn positively surreal as documented by this slide show. (A fitting presentation device for a slide show scene!)
In another excellent horror scene (which includes a delightful jump scare), a costume party is over and its hostess, here positioned in the leftmost part of the shot, is indistinguishable from the two skeleton “mannequins” placed against the windows.
Under attack by the ghost, the hostess collides with a heavy ceiling lamp, and the scene concludes with the swinging lamp flickering on and on. This recalls a famous scene in Psycho, but stands on its own legs in Polaroid in several ways: through structure – the scene starts with her noticing that this specific lamp has gone out, and through the ghost’s abilities – it can make lights go out, in order to dim the surroundings so it can act. So it seems fitting that this specific lamp became the heroine’s downfall, incapacitating her, making her easy prey for the ghost.
The opening shot, which is both visually stimulating due to the odd constellation of figures, and narratively intelligent since the Polaroid camera is inside the box, “looking” up at new victims and seeing its first light after possibly having been dormant for years.
The brief flash of the camera reveals a shadow in the doorway, an opening that is eerily included in the next shot as the girls wait for the photo to develop, the form and darkness of its frame echoing the doorway.
Still in the prologue, which like so many Polaroid scenes is dimly and exquisitely lit: here there is a subtle light from beneath making the pattern in her crotch stand eerily out – like a skeleton?
Climbing the ladder, she is framed nicely while the angle and illumination highlight her terror.
A very nice idea: as she enters the attic, we first see clawlike hands as if it is a monster about to appear, before we see her human face. But then, soon after and very fittingly after this initial gambit, when she places a hand somewhere else a real monster hand embraces it.
A nifty idea: all pupils are being photographed and initially we think we are looking at a strip of stills, but then Bird gets up and leaves, having either sat motionless or the image started as a still. This is not just a gimmick, however: it illustrates her nature as an outsider and inability to fit in with others.
This scene comes after the film has began to falter but its aesthetics and cinematic language cannot be faulted. It is rife with overhead shots, and who can blame the filmmaker with these labyrinthine, Rorschach-like patterns on the ground to work with.
While Bird is on a perilous mission, we return time and again to her friend waiting in the car, shot in unbalanced, unnerving and “unhealthy” compositions.
Car window reflections are ubiquitous in cinema but used to nice effect, and the scene’s concluding shot with the perverse shadow of the tree is an inspired touch.
Let us look at the colour scheme, where yellow and, above all, red is important.
Bird is always wearing this yellow scarf – she is hiding a terrible scar(f) with it, and merely seen as an eccentric her classmates condescendingly call her “Scarf Girl” – and when she photographs a boy she is interested in, he is wearing a related colour (and as can be glimpsed, something yellow under the jacket). Later, at the costume party, as if to emphasise the mutual affection between them, he turns up in her signature colour. One also wonders if the many school buses featuring prominently in the first scene are partly included to give us a subconscious nudge as to the importance of this colour?
Later, she has to give up the scarf since it is almost strangling her, having got hooked on a nail. This can be interpreted as a necessary step on the way to free herself, ceasing to cling to the past disaster that caused the scar. (The motifs of strangulation and neck/throat-as-vulnerable-point return in the climax.)
Another yellow fetishised object of Bird’s is the watch, with the picture of her father when she was a little child.
Another person who clings to past disaster is introduced in a scene that starts with a shot of a yellow curtain. (She is played by famous veteran actor Grace Zabriskie.)
In the prologue, before Bird enters the picture, there is a symbolic flash of red as the camera is used for the first time in the film.
Together with the camera, the two girls of the prologue also find a red ball that will be important, and the heroine of this opening sequence has a red phone.
When Bird first encounters the camera – her co-worker in the antique shop gives it to her – it is wrapped in a red cloth, and both when she holds it up and when her first picture with it is self-developing, the red cloth is carefully prominent in the shot.
Red is clearly a warning sign in this film but here is a more symbolic instance: Bird is about to take a picture (with her regular camera) of a father and child, but stops – like the sign says – when the situation reminds her too much of her past tragedy, and the fact that the father adjusts his daughter’s scarf is also key.
Just some very small things: there is a red mark on the plate of film, and at the exact point when the camera accidentally goes off, its red button is visible for the first time in the scene, after Bird has been fiddling with the camera for quite some time.
Soon afterwards, this red trigger button is intensely fetishised, in two consecutive shots. A moment later something curious happens: as if the red has infected Bird, the purpose of the scarf is revealed to us properly for the first time (see the two first images below), to hide a big red scar on her neck…
…it has been possible, however, for an acutely observant viewer to glimpse the scar before: in a brief moment, in a considerably darker shot, as Bird has turned to look at her mother (top left), and in the earlier scene, first briefly but then hidden by the camera for some time. In this scene we are preoccupied with her odd reaction and facial expression, and it is anyway impossible to see the scar’s full extent; this could be just a momentary bruise. It is fitting, however, that the scar should start to creep into the film in this moment, since she looks at a situation reminding her how she got it.
Soon afterwards, the scar and the colour red are intertwined again, as she is using a red mirror to check if her scar is visible (here the lighting makes the scar itself much less red), and this is followed by some very subtle and sophisticated mise-en-scène:
She puts the mirror into the purse, but as she pulls out the polaroid she took of her co-worker, the colour red clings to it since the mirror is dragged out again together with the picture. Something awful is going to happen to that co-worker at another location, a scene that is book-ended by red, first by seeing Bird’s car leaving in a shot held for an unusually long time, as if to lend ominous significance to the tail lights…
…and when we return to Bird and the car, in one of the film’s many atmospheric shots, there is a red flare from headlights. In the meantime, during that horror scene at the antique shop, there is another symbolic use of red as the light from the slide projector is turned into the colour of blood.
Having arrived at the costume party, Bird is given an unfortunate Tarot card, and its ominous nature and her costume as Little Red Riding Hood are among the film’s more overt signals. Exceedingly subtle, however, and possibly just coincidence, is the red/pink object in the hair of the girl in the foreground. There is hardly anything else red in this entire sequence and since the four teenagers are about to be photographed by the cursed camera, we cannot safely dismiss it as insignificant.
After another death in Bird’s circle, the next scene starts with a red mug – and a hand that look unnervingly like a claw – more mugs follow, before an aside to the Polaroid camera, with its red button and red-brown surface. (That red-brown part is the last we will see of the camera in the film – just luck or a deliberate use of CGI to round off the red pattern?) The roses in the bottom shot are not an exactly subtle touch, but undeniably striking and aesthetically pleasing.
Later in the film, as Bird and a friend is taking off on an important mission, it is tail light time again, with the last shot inventively mirrored in its entirety.
A late horror scene is initiated with fluttering of papers as if rustled by an unseen hand, with an apparently red pencil on top, and the lighting is intermittently turned into red.
A climactic scene is peppered with feverish exit signs.
We end this survey of Polaroid with a series of bridges: First Bird biking home in an early scene, then a tragic situation as she mourns her co-worker, and a later scene concluding the pattern: