Horror films may be able to dream up imaginative and terrifying monsters that are truly the stuff of nightmares, but no matter how disturbing they may be, the real-life atrocities that have been perpetrated throughout mankind’s sordid history will always eclipse them. The evil that men do is far greater then anything a Xenomorph or a creature from a black lagoon could ever perpetuate – something Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz‘s debut horror film Antebellum leans into throughout it’s tale of time travel and racist oppression.
Antebellum opens in a Louisiana slave plantation run by Confederate soldiers during the Civil War, where we are introduced to Eden (Janelle Monáe), a black slave being subjected to the most terrible torture at the hands of her vicious masters. However, we soon learn that Eden is in fact a woman called Veronica Henley, a sociologist from the 21st century who has seemingly travelled through time to one of the most brutal periods in American history. How has she come to end up in another time altogether? Therein lies the film’s main mystery, one which doesn’t quite unfold in a satisfying fashion, intriguing as it may be on paper.
The film has a killer premise going for it, but major pacing issues unfortunately hamper proceedings and bring the central narrative to a screeching halt at the midway point. Antebellum opens in subtle and intriguing fashion, tossing out hints, red herrings and inconsistencies as we are introduced to the horrific and unforgiving world Eden/Veronica now inhabits, but the story hits a sudden awkward stop once it hits the second act, ultimately pausing to heavily detail what most viewers will have already worked out. The story would have been better had the first two acts been swapped so that the story could naturally build, but clearly the filmmakers preferred to open in the midst of the action instead so as to generate more mystery and unease. It’s understandable, but it does cost the film a lot of its forward momentum.
A tension soaked final act does just about rescue proceedings. With the mystery blown wide open, the film suddenly ups the ante and provides some truly nail-biting moments as we discover the true extent of the nightmare scenario Veronica has been caught in. There’s a degree of social commentary here from the filmmakers, but it never goes beyond a simple message, nor is it explored any further then in a few lines of dialogue. We never fully understand exactly why Veronica and her fellow slaves are unable to escape, nor is the final reveal of what’s truly going on explored in any depth beyond the big reveal. But regardless, the film wraps up in a satisfying manner, one which should terrify the audience with just a few familiar, disturbingly ordinary bits of imagery.
The directors should be applauded for their excellent skill behind the camera though, even if the plot and messages don’t hit the mark as intended. The performances and technical aspects are all superb here, particularly the central performance from Monáe, who creates and reveals distinctive sides of her character for each period we see her in whilst maintaining a solid continuity of performance throughout, whilst Pedro Luque‘s gorgeous cinematography casts the horrors of the plantation against bright, off-kilter colour which imbues the film with a somewhat beautifully queasy, out-of-sorts aesthetic.
Whilst the film doesn’t quite hit the mark, the Blu-ray package itself is certainly worth picking up, as it includes a fantastic 67 minute ‘Making-Of’ documentary which goes behind the scenes and explores the film’s creation in a degree of detail far greater then on other recent disc releases. The Blu-ray also includes a couple of additional short featurettes on the film’s excellent opening sequence (5 mins) and the film’s hidden clues (6 mins), plus a few deleted scenes (8 mins) for good measure.
Antebellum, despite it’s obvious well-intended notions, ultimately boils down to simple shock tactics, and thus never quite finds a genuine point to make despite its unique concept. As a horror movie, it never quite delivers the scares, and as a piece of socio-political commentary, it feels rather empty, thanks to a somewhat botched narrative, a lack of emotional development and a rather simplified message. Those in need of a tense survival thriller may find what they’re looking for here, but whilst some disturbing questions are certainly raised, they are never really explored or answered satisfactorily by the time credits roll. The monsters in Antebellum may be more real than any prosthetic-laden beast of horror movie lore, but don’t expect the film to explore their nightmarish facets in any kind of provoking manner.