Review: Disappearance at Clifton Hill

Year: 2020
Runtime: 100 Minutes
Director: Albert Shin
Writers: James Schultz, Albert Shin
Stars: Tuppence Middleton, Hannah Gross, David Cronenberg

By Tom Moore

The third feature from writer/director Albert Shin, “Disappearance at Clifton Hill”, takes viewers on a moody Niagara Falls mystery that offers a great atmosphere, but a lacklustre conspiracy story.

The film follows Abby (Tuppence Middleton), a woman returning to her hometown of Niagara Falls to settle an inheritance she gains from her late mother. Although she’s been away for quite some time, Abby is still haunted by a memory from her childhood of her seeing a young boy with one eye being kidnapped. So, when she makes new connections to the boy’s disappearance, she begins to investigate the town’s history and meets some interesting discoveries that unveil an elaborate conspiracy. With her checkered past rearing its ugly head and her investigation gaining some unwanted attention, Abby must uncover the truth before she’s completely silenced.

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Tuppence Middleton in Clifton Hill (2019)

Generally, Niagara Falls is this symbol of beauty where romance seekers flock to share special moments with their special someone – but that’s not the case here. There’s something so intriguing about the way that Shin shows the barren, Las Vegas-like setting of the town of Niagara Falls that fits so perfectly with the moody atmosphere he creates. The shadowy cinematography from Catherine Lutes and the score from Alex Sowinski and Leland Whitty match perfectly to create those perfect neo-noir mystery vibes. Even better is the set design as some of the locations, including a space alien-themed diner and the motel that Abby inherits, have this distinguishable look to them that immediately piques your interest. Shin certainly has all the right technical pieces in place to give viewers the kind of dark undertones fitting for a small-town conspiracy thriller.

However, the shady and secretive tone of the film can be a major hindrance in the viewer’s being able to connect to the story and characters – especially Abby. What I mean is that character come off incredibly one-note in the way they act and say dialogue that there’s very little spark to the characters. Abby especially lacks spark at times because she, like most of the characters in this film, is unable to escape her cold and rigid demeanour for most of the film. There’re some moments where you can tell she’s building confidence, like when she tricks Bev (Elizabeth Saunders) into coming to the motel or everything with the Magnificent Moulins, but it’s really hard to get a read on Abby’s personality – which ultimately makes it tough to connect to her.

“[the] shady and secretive tone of the film can be a major hindrance in the viewer’s being able to connect to the story and characters – especially Abby.”

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Hannah Gross and Tuppence Middleton in Clifton Hill (2019)

Not to mention, it’s hard to sympathize or understand her obsession with finding the truth because the film doesn’t really flesh out her motivations much. It’s almost like she’s only interested in finding the truth because she just happens to be home and it would’ve been more interesting to see how this childhood trauma has really affected her throughout the years. It was honestly more interesting learning that this is based on an instance that Shin, himself, had grown up in Niagara Falls and the film could’ve used more of these personal aspects to make its characters and story more alive.

Now, while the overall tone of the characters can be stuck in the cold moodiness of the film, that doesn’t mean we don’t get some solid performances. Like I said, when Middleton can break out of her icy exterior, she’s a lot of fun and brings out some strong personality and moments of obsession. It’s great to see horror icon David Cronenberg in a rare acting role as Walter, a town historian and podcaster, and his voice thrives so well that I’m secretly hoping he might have a podcast of his own for me to listen to.

Marie-Josee Croze also has a great moment later in the film as one-half of the Magnificent Moulin’s with tenacity and spark that makes for a great monologue and sleight of hand scene. Outside of these instances though, most of the characters struggle to make an impression because of their generic motivations and lacklustre personalities.

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David Cronenberg in Clifton Hill (2019)

“As a whole, viewers that find themselves always searching for that elusive and rare moody neo-noir that shows an iconic location in a whole new light will be perfectly please…However, anyone looking for a thrilling conspiracy mystery might leave a little underwhelmed.”

As for the story of Abby discovering the truth, it’s just okay. The opening certainly makes you interested in where things are going, but all the discoveries and findings the film has felt like they fly too low under the radar. Now, I’m not one for needing an immense amount of shock value to stay invested into the story, but this film surely used some of that because the rough pacing and lack of energy made it borderline boring at times.

While I appreciate the film trying to build a history and backstory for the area through character and thankfully with less cliché library research scenes, it’s hard not crave some juicy or exciting moments to reinvigorate interest in what’s happening. There’re even some possibly exciting moments, like a fun-looking haunted house sequence, that are cut short and viewers will rarely reach the edge of their seats.

As a whole, viewers that find themselves always searching for that elusive and rare moody neo-noir that shows an iconic location in a whole new light will be perfectly pleased with what Shin offers here. However, anyone looking for a thrilling conspiracy mystery might leave a little underwhelmed.

2.5 stars

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