Review by C.J. Bunce
How can a movie only make $25,000 at the box office and be this good? It must be poor marketing–the movie poster calls it darkly comical, and there’s no humor intended in Albert Shin’s semi-autobiographical directorial debut, the brilliant mystery/suspense/thriller Disappearance at Clifton Hill. A 2019 Canadian release that premiered in the U.S. in 2020, this is the kind of simmering mystery in the vein of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, with a genre-bending vibe that blends You Should Have Left, I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House, The Sinner, Picnic at Hanging Rock, and Archive 81–and yet it’s unlike any of them. It stars Tuppence Middleton (The Current War, Jupiter Ascending, The Imitation Game, Mank) in a worthy–and similar–follow-up to her starring role in The Lady Vanishes.
Abby is only seven years old when she sees the boy with one eye, hiding while she vacations with her family in the woods not too far from her home in Niagara Falls.
The last time we saw Niagara Falls on the screen was the brilliantly funny short-lived series Wonderfalls. Again, this isn’t comedy at all, and the movie might be horror in the sense of any true crime fiction story where you don’t fully understand the risks for the protagonist until the end. Director Shin and cinematographer Catherine Lutes (Y: The Last Man, Anne with an ‘E’) create a perfectly eerie setting out of the split, past-their-prime, border resort towns around Niagara Falls.
Middleton plays grown-up Abby, returning to the area when she inherits her family’s ghost-town like motel. When deciding whether to sell to the head of the long-standing first family of the area, she struggles to find direction, and the viewer is provided with no window to her past. This includes confrontation with her sister Laure, played by Hannah Gross (Joker, The Sinner), who has never believed Abby’s story about the little boy.
The image of the boy haunts Abby more than ever now that she’s back home, and so she enlists Laure’s husband’s help, then tries the police, to no avail. Only when she encounters an old man who hosts a paranormal/paranoid podcast played by the horror genre’s Baron of Blood, The Dead Zone, The Fly, Scanners, Friday the 13th: The Series, Dead Ringers, and Videodrome director (and Star Trek: Discovery actor) David Cronenberg does it seem like we could be in the area of an episode of The X-Files or Twin Peaks. Did a kooky local, inanely popular magic duo feed their kid to trained tigers? What the heck is really going on in this bad retro “Wish You Were Here” postcard? And yet it’s like something written by Max Allan Collins or David Lynch-lite–complete with a seedy motel and diner.
It’s a 1970s-style noir mystery taking place today with cell phones and the Internet to facilitate fact finding, and it’s expertly executed.
Disappearance at Clifton Hill is a good find, an independent film you could accidently stumble upon, powerful and yet strangely thin at the same time, a similar find to The Vast of Night with the uncertainty of Midnight Special, yet somewhat less compelling than either. It’s because of a good script, good cinematography, and good acting by Middleton that this mystery mix rises above similar movies floating in the streaming ether.
Catch Disappearance at Clifton Hill now streaming on Netflix.