Reviews Short Narrative

The Abyss (2020) – 3 stars

Director: Will Priddis

Running time: 7mins

One of the safe, tried and tested truisms constantly churned out on the televised cooking shows I have voraciously devoured during lockdown is that “less is more.” When you are working with top of the range ingredients, the assertion goes, being too intricate with accompanying ingredients can end up detracting from them.

I’ve often felt that this is a pretty milquetoast critique, pulled out of the backside of an expert who is desperately grasping for something to say, or a socially aloof elitist who is so far away from the breadline they have never been concerned where their next meal is coming from. For me, sometimes more is more. A rare slither of the finest Wagyu is all fine and well, but if I don’t get some decently proportioned sides with that I’m going to be starving again in an hour – and I’m probably not going to be all that satisfied by the beef as a result, however select it may have been.

What we have in Will Priddis’ The Abyss is precisely this; one prime piece of produce which is enough to make you salivate at just the mention of it, but inadequately supported by its accompanying cast of ingredients. Priddis – who has evidently been more productive amid the coronavirus crisis than this Master Chef-bingeing critic – has written an absolutely fabulous script, but in his rushed, bare-bones attempt to put it to film, he has not completely done it justice.

When I say “fabulous script,” that might be something of an understatement – let me elaborate. When The Abyss reaches its conclusion, there is no credits sequence – presumably because it was a one-man show, and its creator was humble enough not to want to end his film with a roll of honour “Written, directed, produced, edited, soundtracked, and catered by Will Priddis” – leaving me somewhat in the dark about who actually crafted the story. I subsequently spent the next hour running excerpts of the dialogue through Google, and re-reading extracts of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart to make sure it wasn’t lifted from some publically available source text. As far as I can tell, it was not – which means that while he has clearly taken inspiration from them, Priddis has managed to produce his own writing which is of such a calibre that it could feasibly be mistaken for Poe, or Lovecraft.

Centring upon a young man driven to murder by his torturous interactions with a spiteful old man, the story sees Priddis’ nameless protagonist in a blind panic as he attempts to escape the house of his victim. Pursued by an the apparition of his deceased tormentor, his search for an escape becomes increasingly desperate, before he finally throws himself at the mercy of the spirit. Expecting the phantom to take its revenge on him, an unexpected and altogether more unnerving ending sees him released. The old man’s true ‘revenge’ is not to be taken by some crude act of spiritual violence, but the fact that he has brought his young associate down to his level – and Priddis’ surviving lead must now live the rest of his life in this state. Perhaps in decades to come, he will go on to create another killer, himself a bitter old miser.

It is a bravura story – subtle and restrained – which resists the common pitfall of amateur horror writing, by refusing to be punctuated with the clumsy death of its main character. As a guilty connoisseur of creepypastas, it is an ending I am all too well acquainted with – but Priddis’ writing shows a maturity that elevates it well above such attempts.

With that being said, the fact Priddis has so hastily committed this story to film means the final product is fraught with flaws. As an actor, while his delivery of his script is not especially poor per se, it lacks the oomph that its dialogue calls for. This is particularly pronounced when he recounts conversations between the lead character and the old man – for which the young man performs the latter’s half of the discussion for the audience. There is not enough theatricality to either. For the young man’s half, his own depiction of himself is not full of the bluster or self-confidence you would expect from a character so determined to be seen as a real man that he would resort to murder. Meanwhile, you would think that his portrayal of the sneering old man who infuriated him to the point of violence would be a decrepit and croaking caricature. As it is, what little distinction between the two is insufficient, and had Priddis not been forced by circumstance to carry out the part himself amid the lockdown, I suspect he might have cast an actor who appears a mite older for the role.

While it might well have been driving him mad to sit on this script amid lockdown, it might have been advisable for Priddis to wait to adapt The Abyss for this reason – and perhaps busy himself with a different project. With regards to rushing this production, another thing Priddis should take care to note in future is that when submitting his film for the consideration, whether or not he writes “/w draft sound design” on your entry, most will still grade it on the basis that his soundtrack is final. A change to the sound design after festivals see a film could completely change the feel and impact of a story – and not only for the better – so as a rule, I would advise filmmakers to only send out their work when it is actually finished.

In this case, fortunately for Priddis, his apparently make-shift sound design is pretty on-point – built largely on the booming thrum of a single guitar chord. Rather like the score to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, it serves as seasoning to emphasise the film’s shocks, and just steers clear of leaving the audience feeling cheated into feeling scared, as with films in the style of The Conjuring. For that reason, I would suggest Priddis errs on the side of caution when it comes to modifying his score for future distribution.

Unfortunately, another aspect of the hurried production is that the set does not feel as though it fits with the floral, period dialogue – even if the film is shot in black and white. Double-glazed windows do not fit for this reason, and neither does the warm glow of a modern electric lamp, which illuminates the entire room and detracts from any feeling of shadowy atmosphere there might have been. The flickering flame from a paraffin lamp would have made for a much more affecting location for a haunting, while also allowing us to see less of the rather ramshackle appearance of the spirit itself. While Jonathan Miller’s adaptation of M R James’ Whistle and I’ll Come to You might rather effectively centre around a bed-sheet, it is lit in a way that you cannot make out precisely what shape the ghost is taking – while unfortunately the bright room Priddis’ entity occupy shows it to resemble the staple Halloween costume of a stained bed-sheet with eye-holes, draped over a toddler.

In his director’s statement, Priddis said that it was his intention was absurdism – centring his film on the futility of life, and of the thin veneer between apparently sophisticated human beings and their brutal inner urges. His script entirely succeeds in embodying those themes. Unfortunately, his execution often borders on a very different kind of absurdity – and while an amount of comedic edge can help emphasise moments of dread in a good horror, the ones here largely serve to undermine the story’s darker potential.

If this had been a short story Priddis had written, which I had read and reviewed, I would undoubtedly be looking at scoring it from the upper end of the five-star scale. Unfortunately, for all the intricacy and restraint of the script, his film’s execution lets the story down. I hope to see more from him post-lockdown, because I suspect his work with a wider wealth of talent and materials at his disposal will yield some truly breath-taking results. Until then, this was a good effort – but it could have been great.

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