Despite being a brit myself, I have avoided Brit horror in recent years as films have been somewhat lacking in both style and substance. The tides are now turning. Saint Maud arrived with much fanfare last year. Now The Heiress sees its release this month. Trust me when I say add it to your watch list.
Claire (Candis Hergaard) and Anna (Jayne Wisener) have recently lost their beloved grandmother. Claire is struggles to process the news, and at the same time as grieving, she is learning to live with a new long-term condition which causes seizures. The family are haunted by a tragedy that saw Claire and Anna's great grandmother make a pledge to a malevolent female spirit who deals with their abusive great grandfather in exchange for her daughter. Now it's curse passes to the sisters.
I really appreciated the ordinary reality of the characters lives. Usually haunting films seem to focus on a creepy and delipidated old house yet at the centre of The Heiress is an well kept and modern home within a suburban community. Further, as the story progresses, the spirits seem to follow Claire into hospital making you question whether Claire is suffering from some form of mental condition.
It is the performances of both Candis Hergaard as Claire, and Jayne Wisener as Anna, that really elevate The Heiress over other films within the sub-genre. Hergaard is exceptional as Claire, managing to balance her complexities and challenges wonderfully and empathetically. Rather than weak, terrified, oddball we are used to seeing in such films, Hergaard shows Claire as a multi-dimensional character who is both extremely vulnerable and fiercely independent, resilient and brave and yet scared at the same time. We feel Claire's weariness, yet glimmers of her passion for life points towards her former 'larger than life' character. The way Claire's seizure disorder is written and portrayed was accurate and handled respectfully which is a refreshing change. Films often unintentionally reinforce negative stereotypes.
Wisene portrays a complementary opposite in Anna. Sweet, caring and fun-loving, she loves Claire dearly and wants to help however she can which creates a familiar tension in all her relationships from the relationship with their parents, her boyfriend and Claire herself. The strain that Anna faces as Claire pushes back on the assistance is where Wisener really gets to demonstrate her range. Her feelings are those that many who have found themselves in the position of carer can relate too and Wisener offers a respectfully realistic portrayal.
It isn't unusual for supernatural horror to play on our sense that the ghosts may be imagined, yet The Heiress does this in a believable way. In The Heiress the natural reaction of all is that potentially Claire's visions are as a result of her medication and she is clearly loved by her family. Even when her parents seek a private medical assessment, Anna seeks spiritual counsel - clearly out of empathy for her sister who is convinced by this point that Lilith is using her as a conduit to ensure history repeats itself. Of course by the mid-point the ghosts start revealing themselves to others, yet Brad is treated as wind up merchant and Anna reasons away her own experiences. This felt a very natural reaction to the situation rather than suddenly bringing in psychics as is often seen in Hollywood horror.
Despite its serious storyline, moments of typically British dark humour seems to arise at times. For example director Chris Bell makes an appearance as the obnoxious Brad whose inappropriate tales of previous dates makes for an all too familiar dating horror story. The location and positioning of the ghosts in the final scene made me smile yet still had me question whether these were very much Claire's inner demons. These moments of humour may have been unintentional but adds to the film's charms.
A drawback for me is the imagery and make-up of the spirit Lilith which unfortunately made me think of the exorcist parody in Scary Movie. There are some genuinely frightening moments in the first half of the Heiress when we just see glimmers here and there and I think if The Heiress maintained a 'less is more' approach to the ghosts then the tension of the first half of the film would have carried through to the end. Don't let this put you off though as the two child spirits are truly creepy in way that made me think of J-horror classic The Ring.
What is interesting is that the film avoids the obvious trope of using religion to banish the curse. Father O'Shea (David Schaal) seems to have a saviour complex insisting that Claire finds God. Yet her treating consultant, Dr. Medhurst (Jonny Phillips) refuses to allow him access as Claire is extremely vulnerable. This was a small but important touch that made The Heiress feel very real and relevant. Ultimately, drawing on her love for her sister, Claire finds her own strength in dealing with Lilith and the other spirits.
The Heiress is an atmospheric, character-driven horror, which blurs the lines between the psychological and supernatural. It is an enjoyable watch and highly recommended.
The Heiress is released on VOD 15th March 2021 in the UK (16th elsewhere)