Disappearance at Clifton Hill is what I like to call a “viber.”
Vibers are movies and TV series that appeal to you on an almost primal level. They’re less about action, character, and story than creating a heightened mood and captivating sense of place. Nicolas Winding Refn’s blood-soaked crime-thrillers, Only God Forgives and Too Old to Die Young are prime examples. They both use music, lighting, shot compositions, and editing to hook you on a visceral level.
It’s not that vibe films can’t have great characters and a compelling story, (Twin Peaks may be the greatest vibe show of all-time), it’s that the overall vibe is so rich and immersive that it feels like a character itself.
Quite often, vibers win over viewers’ unconditional love or miss the mark completely. There isn’t much middle ground.
Disappearance at Clifton Hill from director (and co-writer) Albert Shin is an unabashed viber. The story takes place in the dreary town of Niagara Falls, Ontario. And by no means am I taking shots at Niagara Falls. Shin’s movie version is a withered and depleted husk of a town that cinematographer Catherine Lutes captures with eerie stillness. It’s a place where the sky is always grey, the streets are always wet and desolate, and even the power of the mighty falls is diminished — city officials limit the force of the Falls during the tourist off-season.
In Shin’s dismal take on the town, Clifton Hills, isn’t somewhere you go, it’s somewhere you end up.
The story centres on Abby (Tuppence Middleton), a complicated young woman who returns to her hometown of Niagara Falls, after her mother’s death. Abby and her sister Laure (Hannah Gross) inherited the family business, the dilapidated Rainbow Inn which is a rundown roach motel that “hookers won’t even stay at.” The sisters can’t agree on whether to sell the business or keep it going. The problem may be that Abby has more pressing matters on her mind.
At the age of 7, Abby witnessed a violent crime when she saw a young boy beaten and abducted in the woods. Although Abby told her family what happened, nobody believed her. After returning home as an adult, she discovers new evidence to help her unravel the possible murder. As Abby tries to solve the 25-year-old mystery she is forced to confront her troubling track record with telling the truth.
Disappearance at Clifton Hills’ story lacks supernatural elements, but that doesn’t stop it from feeling surreal and unsettling. Shin imbues every scene with a haunting sense of menace, and it feels like anything can happen at any moment. It helps that bizarre townies (like David Cronenberg’s character Walter) literally pop up when you least expect it.
I love how Shin creates such a distinctive sense of place, but that’s about it. I was never invested in the shallow characters and their convoluted backstories. Most often, the hazy dreamworld pacing and tone come across as flat and listless. To win me over a film has to make me care about more than the central mystery. At least, most of the time.
Disappearance at Clifton Hill kept me hooked even though I never cared about what was happening. I know that statement is strange praise. There are hints of a great neo-noir fighting to break out of Shin’s latest feature, but these glimpses only tease us. The captivating genre flick the plot hints at never fully takes form. What we do get, however, is a mediocre thriller with a killer vibe.
And in this case, a killer vibe is just gratifying enough.