When men talk fondly about “the girl next door,” they never mean someone like Isabelle, who turns that all-American fantasy into a real nightmare for the sweet middle-class couple who move next door to a Satanic family in Rob Heydon’s run-of-the-mill chiller. Named after the creepy neighbors’ godforsaken daughter, “Isabelle” is curiously old-fashioned and not at all original enough to distinguish itself in American release. In the context of its world premiere at South Korea’s Busan Film Festival, however, this by-the-numbers midnight movie could work well for export to countries that put stock in ghosts and possession — a context in which the American cast and setting might actually serve as novelties.
Matt (Adam Scott) is a successful lawyer and doting husband whose new job brings him and pregnant wife Larissa (Amanda Crew) to Sarasota Springs. They are the kind of perfect-looking couple routinely depicted in real estate advertisements, although the view looks slightly different from the upstairs window of the house next door, where 24-year-old Isabelle (Zoë Belkin) can be seen lurking at all hours. From her perch, where she sits scowling in her wheelchair, red eyes glowing with a jealous rage it will take the entire movie to fully comprehend, Isabelle can see directly into Matt and Larissa’s bedroom — a vantage that’s not only voyeuristic but also revealing of just how much they have to lose.
Running barely 80 minutes with credits, “Isabelle” hardly allows for any subplots, introducing a handful of side characters — Matt’s police officer dad (Booth Savage), Larissa’s supportive out-of-town sister (Krista Bridges), and a law-firm intern (Shanice Banton) whose friendliness Matt mistakes for flirtation — with nothing much to do other than buy time until the film’s first shock: While introducing herself to frazzled-looking neighbor Ann (Sheila McCarthy, channeling Piper Laurie’s performance in the original “Carrie”) across the driveway, Larissa suddenly doubles over in pain, bleeding heavily through her jeans.
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She’s rushed to the hospital, where doctors are barely able to save her life, but not the baby’s. Larissa will spend the rest of the movie coping with that loss and deciding whether she has the will to go on without her child — which is a real struggle for women who miscarry, although the movie treats the tragedy as little more than a generic convention. The same goes for Isabelle’s backstory, which apparently involves both a debilitating condition (she was born with spina bifida and is deaf and mute to boot) and a history of bizarre torture at the hands of her father.
Mostly, Heydon needs an excuse to start terrorizing Larissa with hallucinations that may be endangering her life. Turns out Larissa has some troubling family history as well, and those experiences — plus the minute she spent clinically dead in the hospital — make her unusually attuned to spirits, or some such nonsense. Movies like “Isabelle” require a certain amount of explaining, but mostly, they rely on an elaborate system of rules and conventions established by all the films that have come before, providing a kind of shorthand for the real business at hand: slowly driving Larissa insane as she dreams of the demon baby she would have had, or hears the sound of crying from the empty nursery upstairs, or starts to receive unwanted visitations from Isabelle herself.
Matt does his best to calm her nerves, although as choice of actor goes, Scott is benign to the point of boring. By contrast, the skeptical-husband trope tends to be more effective when that character’s inability to understand serves to make the persecuted woman feel more isolated. Regardless, Larissa’s hysteria feels like something borrowed from another generation, back when movies like “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Omen” preyed on expectant mothers’ worst-case anxieties of what childbirth might bring. Here, it’s just a backdrop for appearances by the ghostly shut-in next door, who’s like a less-scary version of the girl from “The Ring.”
In that department, “Isabelle” has little or nothing new to offer, coming across as a training-wheels exercise in which an inexperienced director tries his hand at all the stock fright tactics: the ambiguous religious ritual Ann performs in a living room lit by a hundred candles, the revolving camera that reveals Isabelle lurking in the background, the scene in which she appears reflected in the bathroom mirror or sleeping next to Larissa in bed. Except the scary thing here is that Heydon has more than 20 years of experience (per the unfamiliar Canadian helmer’s IMDb profile, at least). Credit goes to Mark Korven’s generic score of discordant strings and swelling reverberations for helping to make these tired devices work, although the ending is pretty much a total bust, undoing what few horrors have come before. A shame. Isabelle would’ve made such a good babysitter.