★★★★ out of ★★★★★
Stark, Smart, and Moody clockwork horror that contemplates fate and predictive behavior.
Directed by Giordano Giulivi
Hail! Hail! Black and white! The closing feature film of the Portland Horror film festival, The LaPlace’s Demon was in diametric opposition to the previous feature of the festival, Puppet Master The Littlest Reich. While PMTLR was a gory splatterfest, filled with comic moments and over-the-top schlock and sensation, The LaPlace’s Demon is a brainy and starkly beautiful black and white film that harkens back to classics like And then there Were None, 10 Little Indians, The Haunting, and the less heady, but equally clockwork puzzle box that is Thir13een Ghosts. It also has a graphic semblance to the noir comic film Sin City, with all its high definition shadow play.
The LaPlace’s Demon is the story of a group of scientists who are intent on proving the predictability of a shattering glass and are invited to share their findings with a mysterious professor who lives in a mansion on the top of a remote island. Perhaps with the exception of the proverbial cabin in the woods, or the house on an Indian burial ground, few locales scream “Don’t go there!” like a mansion on a remote cloud shrouded island. But, the scientists pay the location no heed and proceed up to the top of the big estate impossibly perched on top of a craggy bluff, like a Magritte painting.
They are not greeted by the professor in person but are instead addressed by the professor by old-school videotape. There is much exposition about the nature of the predictability of fate, and whether human behavior can be predicted as exactly as a shattering glass… seemingly impossible. The knowledge of which would change the world, if you could accurately predict what a group of people could do as if it were an equation to be solved. The actual LaPlace’s Demon is a term that stems from French Scientist Pierre Simone de LaPlace, and it involves casual or scientific determinism, and modeling the future can be done mechanically. SCIENCE! In addition to trying to wrap my brain around this, the movie is in Italian with subtitles so you have to work hard to keep up with the exposition. The shrouded mystery man then announces that he had summoned these specific people to be an experiment on human predictability, and has upped the stakes of his little game. The visitors soon realize that one of their party has disappeared.
The next big reveal comes when they find a dollhouse that sits atop a massive series of clockwork gears, pulleys, and springs. Inside this dollhouse are chess pieces… seven pawns, notably with one pawn missing. (There are eight on a traditional chess board). In a fun twist, as the characters move about the room, they can see that their pawns move when they move. As the party breaks into search groups to find their missing colleague, and to find a means to get help, the clockwork dollhouse reveals a queen. As the guests who remained in the living room watching with horror as the queen plays a game of cat and mouse with the pawns in the dollhouse, swallowing up any pawns that it captures. That queen becomes a terrifying symbol throughout the film. As soon as the queen showed up the audience went “Oooooohhhh!” The dollhouse has the same effect as the motion trackers in Aliens. It’s the unseen menace that shows the DOOM… albeit abstractly.
The reveal of what the queen really is withheld as a mystery for quite some time. And, I won’t spoil what it is, but it all makes sense in the context of this film. Like the precedent Agatha Christie movies, the cast gets whittled down one by one, and the characters struggle to maintain their cool as they try and cheat fate. The professor crows by video, which he has managed to predict would play out just like it has, so he pre-recorded the whole scenario, even the dialogue… or… is he somehow clued into the proceedings like Oz behind the curtain? That always looms as a distinct personality throughout the movie.
This movie, as I have mentioned, is HEAVY on the exposition. There is a lot to unpack, and it asks a lot of the audience. For a good portion of the movie, I did struggle to pick up what was going on, but as the third act focuses in on beating the machine at its own game, the movie really sucks you in. I would have preferred the ending to have a little less of that philosophizing to the very last. There was a really good opportunity to make a clean break to the movie… that would have punctuated the film with an…. “AAAAAND there you go. BANG! Done! Roll Credits!” But it remained true to its nature and decided to explain some more stuff.
I would say this is NOT a gateway horror film. As good as it is, it is not an easy film to digest. This is a movie that would be appreciated by someone who loves mysteries, philosophy, science, and puzzles, and for those types of horror movie fans, this would be a must-see. It has some good horror bits, but it is not a bloody picture. Those who are looking for a visceral and escapist horror film would do better to catch Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich. But if you are a fan of smart, classic horror movies, that resemble The Univited or Cat People, I think you’ll really appreciate this Italian treat. Credit should be given to the Cinematographer Fernando D’Urbano who gave us a high contrast shadowplay of a production, and the terrific score by Ducio Giulivi, who also plays Isaac in the movie.
The LaPlace’s Demon is not rated, but would probably be PG-13. It did very well at the Fantasia Film Festival, and Screamfest, where it managed to pick up some awards earlier in the festival circuit. I’d like to thank The Portland Horror Film Festival for bringing this obscure gem to Portland for us to see! It’s still working its way through the festival circuit and has not yet been released online, or in limited release.
The Scariest Things will let you know when more release information will be available.