By Thom Ernst
After the over-stylized and confounding Suspiria remake, it’s reasonable to be wary of any movie involving the sheltered lives of school-aged children. There are bound to be demons or a coven of witches lurking in the hallways.
But Level 16 reaches further than the obvious to deliver something uniquely more sinister then simply pitching innocence into the dark arts.
But perhaps the big difference between the two films is that Level 16 is a contemporary film directed by a woman, dealing with the disrupted lives of young girls, whereas Suspiria is directed by a man attempting to recreate a feminine-based horror genre that played better 41 years ago.
Winnipeg-born director Danishka Esterhazy works within a modest budget to deliver a genuinely well-crafted thriller by using one of the oldest special effect techniques available—an intelligent script. Her first image is of a hallway; a barren corridor without character or design.
Along one side of the hallway queues a row of young girls, obedient as only children would be if their youthful impulses have been trained out of them. There is no chatter or fidgeting, only an unnatural submission to what appear to be the rules of their morning routine. They are children without games or toys or any sense of idle comforts. They are distracted only by routine. Their only competition seems to be who among them can best go unnoticed.
And then one girl, Vivien (Katie Douglas), steps out of line.
Hers is a small infraction done in the spirit of kindness toward fellow student – and eventual confidante - Sophia (Celina Martin), but regardless of intent, her punishment will be severe. We don’t know what it is, but we know it’s terrifying and it’s enough to frighten her companions into compliant betrayal.
This is the Vestalis Academy, an unusual name for a boarding school—if, in fact, a boarding school is what it is. It could be a reference to the Vestal Virgins or to a species of damselflies. The girls in this locked-down Academy, which can either be an orphanage or a penitentiary, mingle in a way that seems authentic for children shackled by discipline, designed less to suit their best interest and more to protect the fragile egos of their guardians.
Were it not for a few technical advancements and the odd hints of current fashion, The Vestalis Academy could be from a time history has forgotten (evoked by the ‘50s style social hygiene films the girls must watch regularly). There is a rigid and staunch insistence by the educators (or are they prison guards?) and pseudo-head mistress Miss Brixil (Sara Canning) that the girls follow a ludicrous code with no eye contact or gesture that could be identified as insubordinate.
And there is little evidence of what the world is like beyond the academy walls aside from the occasional visitor and fleeting promises of an idyllic family life ahead for the “graduates”. But it all feels somewhat like a ruse that could implode at any moment. In fact, we can be certain of it because this is a science-fiction teetering towards horror.
Esterhazy doesn’t allow Level 16 to conform to a fallback horror that is based solely on the premise of children in peril. What she has in store is more complicated, and devious.
At its least, Level 16 ranks as a very good episode of Black Mirror but at its best, it succeeds as a hybrid of the kind of dystopic paranoia we get from Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale with touches of sanitized malevolence from Stanley Kubrick.
Level 16. Written and directed by Danishka Esterhazy. Starring Katie Douglas, Celina Martin, Sara Canning. Opens March 15 in Toronto and Calgary, March 22 in Ottawa and March 28 in Winnipeg.