Easily one of Dead by Dawn 2015’s stand-out films, De Poel is a finely tuned masterclass in mounting tension. Director Chris W. Mitchell’s debut feature is an impressive piece of work on all counts, engaging Horror’s age-old love affair with woodland terror in a consistently intriguing objectiveness. It is also a fascinating third writing credit after Mitchell’s playfully nightmarish 1940’s-set Frankenstein’s Army.
The story is simple: two families set up camp next to a beautiful pond only to fall prey to its sadistic memories. Horror has a long history of haunted places rubbing off on innocent people, pulling their discretions to the forefront and charging them individually for a lifetime of sin. If When Animals Dream is this year’s abstract monster story, then Chris W. Mitchell’s De Poel is by all means an abstract witch story. Yet, films like De Poel are instantly suffused with intrigue because they don’t care about the how and why, relegating the possible witch-drowning origin to a brief flashback. Instead, Mitchell focuses on the slowly growing animosity in the two holidaying families; picking out flirtations, old disputes, and underlying anxiety to exploit further down the line.
De Poel is about family first and foremost, about expectation and trust so, naturally, it leads to madness and murder. An excellent cast support the film, but Carine Crutzen and Gijs Sholten van Aschat steal the show as a middle aged couple finally pushed to confront their crumbling marriage. Aschat proves an incredible force in the feature propelling it forward with his tactile portrait of a man in the throes of sinister forces, his writing credit on the film can only have helped. Mitchell’s tight scripting is performed to perfection so that it feels like we’re watching a gothic holiday drama gone to hell as opposed to an out-and-out horror film. There’s something vaguely transcendent about De Poel, in genre terms.
Make no mistake though, there is plenty to be scared of. With apparent ease De Poel achieves an eeriness often skipped in contemporary horror films, ramping up the tension to nightmarish degrees. Careful investigation leant Mitchel’s script a great collection of folk fairy tale iconography. Organic manipulation of the intimate scenario leaves room for plenty great horror images. Rotting food, peripheral glimpses, visitors in the night, it all reeks of death and quickly becomes a distressing atmosphere possessed of dread. De Poel is a diabolic entity, unrelenting and merciless, its idyllic origins made murky by proximity to human evil, its finale proves a surprising but bold transformation from other like films.
A concise and organic horror film that feels fresh and, most importantly, unsettling. Chris W Mitchell’s debut feature is a joyous celebration of horror without getting caught up in dull iconography. Fantastic filmmaking.
Dir: Chris W. Mitchell
Stars: Katja Herbers, Gijs Scholten van Aschat, Alex Hendrickx, Jamie Grant, Carine Crutzen, Bart Klever