Featured image: Jessica Alexander as Bee in Glasshouse. (Courtesy of Fantasia Film Festival.)
Directed by Kelsey Egan. Written by Kelsey Egan, Emma Lungiswa De Wet. Starring Jessica Alexander, Anja Taljaard, Adrienne Pearce. Runtime 1h 34 min. Glasshouse premiered on August 16 at the Fantasia Film Festival.
The sci-fi thriller Glasshouse is a unique film about an uninvited stranger infiltrating a confined space (much like the vastly different horror film, The Righteous, that I reviewed yesterday). In Kelsey Egan’s first feature directing gig, the world created here feels like a different time, but is still very much grounded in our time. It follows a family unit who stay in the titular Glasshouse, completely isolated, staying on a property surrounded by flowers. It sounds beautiful, but once we know what happens every time these women plant a flower, it’s slightly more ominous.
That’s because they’re so protective of their space that they shoot strangers on sight. Then, they bury them in their garden and plant a flower on top of it: Life is taken away; life is created. A main rule as a unit is to not let anyone in, enforced by their forceful and firm matriarch, Mother (a commanding Adrienne Pearce).
She’s so protective because of what’s looming outside, in the form of a toxin called The Shred. Essentially an airborne Alzheimer’s, inhaling it makes you lose portions of your memory, eventually a former shell of yourself. In one of the family’s neat rituals after they’ve shot an intruder, Mother leads them in a tradition, starting with one of my favourite lines in the film: “This once was a man but he got washed away from himself. He forgot, and he soon became forgotten.” You can tell that Mother has been at this far too long.
When these characters go outside, to avoid this fate, they wear beekeeper masks with rigged tubes for breathing. Though these women wear masks and live in isolation, I never once thought of any similarities to our current COVID-19 pandemic. I think it never crossed my mind (well, besides a very brief mention of COVID-19 on a magazine cover) because of the world building here, grounded in the family dynamics and situation. The Shred simply feels like a part of their existence, and it’s treated as such. This world building by Kelsey Egan and co-writer Emma Lungiswa De Wet is impressive.
To compliment the costuming, Catherine McIntosh does such a great job with the mask contraptions, as well as the clothing. In costume and story, it’s apparent this production has a love for The Beguiled. The clothes are beautiful and elegant, timeless to an era, though the matriarch looks like she’s taken fashion advice from Lorraine Warren and her love for the Victorian era.
It also feels like The Beguiled in story, as a mysterious stranger – simply called Stranger, played by Hilton Pelser – stumbles upon their property, wounded, and starts weaseling his way into their family dynamic. He gaslights and throws their home into disarray, especially with their brother Gabe (Brent Vermeulen). However, he infiltrates so easily as he wins the heart of the eldest daughter, a lonely Bee (Jessica Alexander).
That’s much to the chagrin of the middle child, Evie (Anja Taljaard), who’s much more protective of their family unit and their traditions. These traditions are brilliantly thought up by Egan and De Wet, especially the rules to keep this tight-knit community going. The world they so believably create is the reason it doesn’t feel derivative of something like The Beguiled; but instead feels more like passion and homage.
The two distinct, clashing personalities they create for the two sisters is great, and both actresses in Jessica Alexander and Anja Taljaard feel so different but work so well together. First-time actress Kitty Harris impresses as their youngest sister Daisy, often caught in between them. They feel believably like sisters, even by the way they harmonize and work in the garden, singing beautiful, melodic tunes.
There are some emotional moments here especially between Bee and Evie, as we unpack layers that are heartbreaking. That really comes from the writing, which feels so personal in how it handles memory, grief and trauma, and how we choose to handle that trauma. Glasshouse is a fascinating way to explore those themes.
I have to compliment the technical aspects, and how the cinematography by Justus de Jager really accentuates the “fairy tale” vibe here. There’s an extra brightness that’s gorgeous, and how and Egan visually see this world, in terms of the lighting, too, is great. That’s helped especially by shooting at the Pearson Conservatory in South Africa, the titular Glasshouse. Shooting here is such a neat choice; as a location with a lot of history. It feels accurate for this family as they feel like they’re making history as the few inhabitants of a new world like this.
Glasshouse had its World Premiere as part of the Fantasia Film Festival on August 16 and August 18.