Director Osgood Perkins prefaced his Fantastic Fest US premiere screening of FEBRUARY by letting the audience know he wanted to make a film like “Creature from the Black Lagoon” or “Carrie,” a horror film but one filled with sadness. Set at a boarding school during a break when there are only two students left behind, FEBRUARY drips with the solitary atmosphere of winter and loneliness. Rose, played by Lucy Boynton, and Kat, played by Kiernan Shipka, wait at the Brampton Boarding School for their parents to arrive. Rose has intentionally told her parents the wrong day in order to meet with her secret boyfriend, meanwhile Kat has no idea where her parents are and has been having ominous dreams about their deaths. Surrounded by snow and an oppressive gloom, Kat finds herself sleepwalking and succumbing to some evil force that lurks in the basement. Meanwhile, in an alternate timeline, Joan hitches a ride with a couple on their way to visit their daughter’s grave. Clearly Joan is hiding something as memories flash momentarily across screen, but never long enough to establish where and when.

It is difficult to talk in depth about FEBRUARY for two reasons. First of all, a big portion of the film is the reveal at the end that shows how these three girls are tied together, which is one of the most satisfying elements of the film. Second, because of the type of film Perkins wanted to make, there is just not all that much that happens in FEBRUARY,  until the end. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The film captures a naive fear that is only possible at the age when one knows enough to understand the dangers around them but is still able to dream and fantasize like a child. In fact it is possible that there was nothing at all in the basement, and it was merely an idea planted in Kat by something that Rose had said. This is not a horror movie where things jump out and frighten you. This is more of the slow creep that enters your bones like in “The Omen” or “Rosemary’s Baby.”  Perkins does a great job establishing these characters and the setting, and putting several pieces into play. What did happen Kat’s parents? What is in the basement? How did Joan end up alone at the bus station?

The biggest flaw of FEBRUARY is that for all that it sets up, and the gory, chilling, and even surprising conclusion, much of the story remains obscured – lost in the snowdrifts of atmosphere. Ambiguity is never a horrible thing but when a film sets up a question so definitively, it is just frustrating when the question is completely abandoned. The disappearance of Kat’s parents is never solved, maddening since this is the primary plot point that sets all the other wheels of the story in motion. Although Joan is in an alternate timeline, the forced attempt to hide the facts of her relationship to the rest of the story muddies what we really need to know which is just exactly how she got to where she is. Then there is the exorcism that seems to be the effective and the concluding point of one element of the story, but it turns out that it didn’t work. Why? If you have an exorcism in the story, and it appears that the demon has been released, freeing the victim, it doesn’t make any sense for the victim to relapse into possession. It breaks the rules that the film has set up for itself. Either exorcism is a viable option or it’s not, it can’t be both.

In the end FEBRUARY paints a beautiful, sad creepy picture but does not satisfy the images and story that it set up. The performances, especially from Kiernan Shipka, who is really a chameleon dancing between frightened, confident, creepy, and strangely sexual, allow the movie to capture the sadness in our souls. But the more I felt about Kat and what was happening to her, the more frustrated I was at the end by not having much of it explained. Strangely, the director pointed out during his Q&A that there were several things that he was unsatisfied with in the final film. As a debut FEBRUARY is a strong entrance into the world of horror for Perkins. Few directors can map out the emptiness that we feel at that age between childhood and adulthood and lay it out so effectively on screen. The tone set by FEBRUARY was flawless. Unfortunately not as much energy and effort went into making the story feel like it had closure. At the end I was left with more questions that I wanted, questions which undercut the successful mood that had carried me away for the preceding 90 minutes.

Bears Fonte covers indie film for AMFM Magazine and programs and consults for film festivals nationwide, including the highly anticipated St. Lawrence Film Festival.  He is the Founder and Executive Director of Other Worlds Austin SciFi Film Festival as well as the former Director of Programming for Austin Film Festival.  His short The Secret Keeper played at 40 festivals, his feature iCrime was released in 2011 by Vicious Circle.

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