Sunday 12 December 2010

From the archive: "Isolation"

Isolation is one of the first horror films to tackle the controversy surrounding GM/Frankenfoods without becoming completely hysterical or risible - some feat, given that its subject is genetically mutated cows. On a remote Irish farm, farmer John Lynch has hired out his prize heifer to a Government scientific program intended to increase fertility in cattle. The problem is that the mutation is "too quick", as chief scientist Marcel Iures puts it, something that becomes all too apparent when the cow spawns a creature with a deadly bite that is itself pregnant with foetuses whose entire genetic structures have been altered. Sensitive viewers should look away now.

Writer-director Billy O'Brien is careful in his approach - aware, perhaps, that his raw materials could easily tip over into bovine, Orca the Killer Whale nonsense - keeping his gristly, scuttling backbone monsters offscreen for almost half the film, and letting some heavyweight performers carry the film. Vet Essie Davis gets the toughest gig, having to put her hand up a cow's backside twice within the first twenty minutes (close-ups suggest she wasn't faking, either), but the middle section has some convincing interplay between traveller Sean Harris and his runaway bride Ruth Negga, and Lynch is nicely agonised as a decent, struggling working man who's only just realised what he's allowed to happen.

Only in the final half-hour does it give way to the generic, with one or two scenes too many cribbed from Alien, and a coda you can see coming a (country) mile off; altogether more distinctive is a terrific/horrific set-piece that finds Lynch stuck on a tractor in a pit of slurry, just as we've learnt the mutants have developed major sub-aquatic skills. Quite the least of the film's achievements is that it can make a herd of lowing cattle seem ineffably spooky, and O'Brien mines unexpected tensions from such relatively routine agricultural activity as the business of calving, autopsies, and putting an animal down.

(June 2007)

Isolation screens on Channel 4 this Wednesday at 12.50am.

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