Dir. Seth A. Smith. Canada, 2017
"The Crescent" is a reef in Nova Scotia where many ships have sunk. Facing it stands a geometric beach house, whitened like driftwood, with the moon shining through its big panes. This house is photographed as a shape in the elements rather than in ways that connect it to anywhere inhabited. It's a modernist House on the Borderlands.
The story begins when a young woman (Danika Vandersteen) whose husband has just drowned, and their son who is too young to understand his father's absence, are given the keys to the house by a weird relative who suggests it will help them recuperate. But they find it hard to sleep as the doorbell rings repeatedly in the middle of the night -- because of an electrical short, of course.
The Crescent (trailer) is a child on the borderlands movie that may remind viewers of Don't Look Now, The Shining, and The Sixth Sense. It created a hush in the usually boisterous "cult" cinema where I saw it, the way those films can. Everyone in this auditorium could name The Crescent's predecessors, which made us more receptive to it -- not more distanced. The Crescent earns its place in the genre, and prompts me to look back on these films with a better understanding of what I already know, and therefore, as in psychotherapy, with a more open heart.
Films in this genre study a child's often inadvertent behavior with more patience than most documentaries. It's often said that they are horror movies "from a child's perspective," but camera's literal perspective is usually from above or behind the child, and the story usually betrays anxieties about parental failure or marital failure that are over a child's horizons. Parents are the ones having this dream: The Child on the Edge is The Parent's Nightmare. Indeed, these movies are closer to the daily struggle and anxiety of parenting than any other movie this side of The Bicycle Thieves. This is especially true of The Crescent, in which the child is really the director's own two year old son. He is too young to "perform" in except in the sense that babies or animals do, through montage. The Crescent is built around him as he plays or explores the house. It invites us to share, from a parent's perspective, the uncanniness of a small child's presence.
Hence there is tenderness in the film, but it is cooled by the abstract, inhuman patterns that mark the child on the borderlands genre: isolated sounds; architectural shapes; patterns in rugs or wall paper that fill the lens; landscapes so far below the camera that they are tidepools. I relate this feature of the genre, as well, not to a child's anxiety but to the parents', because shapes can lose their familiarity and turn into fields of color in a gaze of anxious supervision. When, for example, the mother in The Crescent looks away from her son playing at the beach, and then looks back, and he is missing, it is partly our own experience of losing track of a dependent, along with the filmmaker's sense of the timing and drama of perception, that suddenly makes the shoreline communicate nothing but its own size. All the other associations have fled. Infinity rumbles behind a layer of dread in this image.
We are a nuclear or single-parent family, far from any other family because we moved to an isolated place to recover from some kind of trauma, perhaps some kind of error. We bet our lives on an only child: If you die, it's the end of me also. Yet, if the worst doesn't happen, the child will survive us into a future we will never see, like a worker arriving for the next shift. That is why the dead walk among the living in these movies, not always bothering to wear the makeup and clothes that would clarify their status, of which they themselves are unaware. Anyone may turn out to be obliviously dead like a child and a dog that cavort in a very old photograph. Behind the nursery, the parent intuits a kind of Limbo. It's a confirmation that movies like the The Crescent see it, too.
The study of parenting; abstraction; the dead among the living -- The Crescent is almost a distillation of these elements, which it shares with other chillers since it shares their insights. To take inventory of them is a way of describing the movie. I've avoided trying to summarize the plot, less for fear of "spoiling" a reversible "twist" than out of hesitation to divulge a secret that the movie keeps so that it can have a subconscious. The secret is something we know, but would sooner forget. A doorbell rings at the same time every night. The recurring scares in The Crescent are less like shocks than reminders.