Janey is sent to a silent meditation retreat, in the woods, for rehabilitation, only to realize that the men who run it are brainwashing women, and if she breaks the rules, she’ll discover what lurks beyond the trees.
Canadian horror Silent Retreat doesn’t want you to idly sit back whilst it plays out in front of you, your fourth beer going warm out of forgetfulness. No, it wants you to think and engage. It wants you to pick apart its symbolism, find meaning in its actions and then finally take a good hard, sobering look at the society whose ideas and ideals surround you on a daily basis. That’s what it wants you to do. But then it throws in a bipedal bat creature that rips everyone apart in a flurry on blood and gristle. I’m not saying the two ideas are mutually exclusive, but it’s hard to see the point where they dovetail.
But let’s rewind. Directed by Tricia Lee and written by Corey Brown, Silent Retreat is the story of Janey (Chelsea Jenish); a moody teen who, as part of a plea bargain in court, is packed off to a rehabilitation centre for women in the middle of nowhere. There, she is stripped of any belongings that make her what she is (photos, books etc) and brought before the tyrannical owner of the retreat, played with eerie calm by Robert Nolan and credited as Doctor. Janey is given a set of rules she must follow; most of which instill the idea that good little girls are to be seen and not heard. They must not talk to the staff or each other. The retreat, entirely manned by men, prides itself on shaping women for the future. If an inmate/camper pushes against this ideal, then the rebuttal is usually met with violence. Or they’re left to fend for themselves against the creature in the woods that circle the retreat.
The first act of Silent Retreat works incredibly well. Largely wordless, it acts as a silent horror movie, as Janey gets her bearings whilst building tenuous relationships with the other women. Some are more indoctrinated than others, reduced to surviving by grassing up their sisters for the slightest of provocations. It’s an incredibly tense period of time in the film. The silence underlining the bubbling threat of violence that permeates throughout. You’d have to be a blind rock not to see the obvious comparisons and criticisms of a patriarchal society. As I say, this is a film with a message. Admittedly, not a very subtle one.
But then the aforementioned creature is brought into the mix. Introduced as a mystery, whose very existence cannot be explained by the retreat, it is merely an affront to humanity. In practice, it looks like the Bat Boy from World Weekly News. Let’s pretend you were watching Seven and instead of the infamous ‘what’s in the baaaaahx?’ scene at the end, Kevin Spacey was revealed to be a chainsaw wielding clown who loved show tunes. You’d struggle to join the dots to what you’d seen previously. And that’s what happens here, the disconnect between what you were expecting and what you get is too great to brush off and retcon in your head at a later date. It completely threw me off and I struggled to get back on track for the remainder of its running time. The more the film played on, the more screen time the creature got until finally, I was wondering if Lee and Brown just threw it in to mess with people who thought they were watching a straight laced horror, with a thick social justice vein.
All of which is a genuinely a shame, because until the rip-off from The Descent runs amok, everything runs pretty smoothly. The narrative peels off the layers to a mystery about the retreat’s real purpose. All of which takes a backseat in the final embers of the film as it becomes what it may as well always should have been – a cinematic fight between an absurd denizen of the night and the final girl.