The Gothic cinema of the 1970s is a genre all its own. Films like Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, Burnt Offerings and The Legend of Hell House exude unique and dripping atmospheres – they are quiet, melancholy, eerie, and not a little bit psychedelic. It’s unfortunate, of course, that these films belong staunchly to their time period; it means we don’t get to see new ones. That is why this year’s festival sleeper, Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl, is such a surprise.
A.D. Calvo’s latest film presents several classic Gothic tropes in its plot – aging recluses, creaky old houses, and, naturally, a lonely young woman struggling to find identity. These elements manifest in the story of Adele, the titular girl, who is sent to a small New England town to take care of her agoraphobic aunt. It’s not an ideal life – the aunt speaks to her only in notes slid under a locked door, and keeps strict rules against loud noises in the house. Adele is given a purpose when she meets the seductive Beth. As their friendship creeps toward something sexual, Beth tries to break Adele out of her shy, obedient shell; but the consequences, and motivations, are darker than Adele can imagine.
It’s a perfectly simple plot, instantly unsettling and offering plenty of eerie images. Adele’s aunt’s house is gorgeous, full of creepy dolls and dark wood architecture, along with both a scary basement and sinister attic. The house provides a moody backdrop to Adele’s intriguing but strange relationship with Beth, who always seems to be hiding something. The atmosphere is spot-on for this type of story – the gorgeous cinematography is full of gloomy greys and blues, evoking a wintry chill, and the spectral soundtrack makes this three-dimensional. It feels like a ghost story told on a quiet Sunday, as a January wind howls past the windows.
Naturally, you can’t have a Gothic thriller without some mental breakdowns. The horror comes as Adele’s environment and Beth’s influence start to wear on her mind. Calvo sets up his atmosphere to support the growing instability, and his direction certainly makes it palpable, but actress Erin Wilhelmi truly carries this part. Her performance as Adele is vulnerable, sad and lonely without being pitiful. She evokes instant empathy – you smile when she is hopeful, and feel dread as that hope dwindles away. Quinn Shepard as Beth is an effective foil to this subdued character, embodying an uncanny combination of sensuality and mal intent.
These elements are engaging enough to carry the audience through a very slow-paced plot. Like many of his obvious inspirations, Calvo takes his time building to a climax. Once we arrive, there is a chance that the audience will be lost – it’s an ending that raises eyebrows, and the credits roll abruptly, after such a patient crescendo. I found myself pondering the ending some while afterwards, though, and found new appreciation for it. It feels right at home in a 70s-style Gothic creeper, and once deciphered, has a few interesting statements to make as well.
Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl is not without flaws – the rather sudden ending, for one – and it does nothing to update the genre, or comment on its influences. That isn’t to say such things are necessary. Calvo takes horror fans back to a period of cinema that was short-lived and almost impossible to recreate fully. If one is not a fan of those slow-paced, moody and cerebral offerings, then this will not change your mind. Those who appreciate that side of the genre will find something rare and delightful. It is a stylistic achievement, and in the end, a melancholy exploration of just what the title promises – loneliness.