Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Disappearance at Clifton Hill (Co-Starring Cronenberg)

The Clifton Hill promenade is sort of like Branson, but with waterfalls and conspiracy theories. Tourists regularly flock to the family friendly attractions on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, but the atmosphere there is really weird during low season. Of course, that is the perfect backdrop for the crime and corruption that unfolds in Albert Shin’s Disappearance at Clifton Hill, which opens this Friday in New York.

When Abby was a young girl, she witnessed a kidnapping while on a family camping trip. During the intervening years, she developed a reputation for telling stories, so her long-suffering sister Laure just assumes there is nothing to it. Nevertheless, when Abby returns to Niagara after her latest crash-and-burn, she resolves to finally solve the mystery. Her dubious investigation soon encompasses the wealthy but suspicious Lake family, who own a good deal of the tacky businesses on Clifton Hill, and the Moulins, a married duo of magicians clearly styled after Siegfried & Roy.

Abby is definitely an unreliable protagonist, but there is still something rotten in Niagara. After all, it’s Clifton Hill, Jake. Frankly, the secrets and conspiracies will not be particularly shocking to genre fans, even though Shin does his best to over-complicate them. However, he does a crackerjack job of establishing the tense mood and getting mileage out of the local idiosyncrasies.

In fact, one of the best things going for Disappearance is the character of Walter Bell, a scuba-diving local historian, who records his “Over the Falls” conspiracy theory podcasts from the town’s UFO diner. He is a memorable eccentric, especially since he is played (with understated elan) by legendary cult film director, David Cronenberg.

Tuppence Middleton and Hannah Gross are both solid as the sisters, but as is always the case in film noirs, the supporting players are much more intriguing and memorable. That very definitely includes Cronenberg. Elizabeth Saunders is also utterly despicable as the villainous Bev Mole. Yet, Marie-Josee Croze and Paulino Nunes outdo her when it comes to chewing the scenery as the sleazy Moulins.

Cinematographer Catherine Lutes certainly makes everything look mysterious and murky. However, the avant-garde jazz-inspired score composed by Alex Sowinski and Leland Whitty (of the jam band-esque jazz group BadBadNotGood) really gives the film an unsettling, yet sophisticated vibe. Their music really makes the film quite distinctive. Jenna Ricker’s The American Side is probably a more entertaining Niagara noir, but it would make a cool double feature with Disappearance. Recommended for fans of chilly thrillers (and Cronenberg), Disappearance at Clifton Hill opens this Friday (2/28) in New York, at the IFC Center.