It’s surprising that more movies haven’t been set in the area surrounding Niagara Falls. The iconic landmark lends itself to cinema and there’s a strangeness about the tourism-led towns around it that’s entirely unique. Filmmaker Albert Shin plays right into that singular weirdness with his enjoyably glum mystery thriller Disappearance at Clifton Hill.
Abby (Tuppence Middleton) returns to her bizarre hometown along with her sister (Hannah Gross) in the wake of their mother’s death. The B&B she owned is being sold to a smarmy property magnate (Eric Johnson) and the milieu of her hometown has reminded Abby of an apparent kidnapping she witnessed as a child. With the help of a local conspiracy podcaster (David Cronenberg), she resolves to investigate the crime and discovers that there’s far more to it than meets the eye — obviously.
Shin’s movie is an atmospheric procedural that unfolds amid the bleak greyness of a tourist-driven economy in the forbidding off-season, in which even the streets seem entirely free of life. Middleton’s subdued performance anchors the narrative even as it unravels into unexpected, but enjoyable, sensationalism. The tone, though, is moody and unspectacular from start to finish, with a refreshing focus on the unglamorous aspects of investigation — flicking through microfilm newspaper archives on the hunt for granular, crucial detail. It’s not quite Spotlight, but it recognises the importance of the small stuff.
Clifton Hill often suffers from getting too bogged down in this detail and occasionally forgetting to be thrilling. However, it kicks up into a new gear when it introduces the Moulins — an exceptionally sinister husband and wife magic duo. A late in the day scene in which they share a tense post-show coffee with Abby reverberates with neatly under-played chills, helped by terrific performances from Marie-Josée Croze and Paulino Nunes.
In fact, one of the joys of the movie is in the way it delivers sensational material through the lens of a vert serious eye, ensuring that the film always remains grounded even as it toys with bizarre ideas. Nowhere is this truer than in Canadian movie legend David Cronenberg’s appearance as the “tinfoil hat-wearing crazy” local historian Walter, who never resists a chance to shill his conspiracy theory podcast. His broader performance provides a fun counterpoint to Middleton’s more controlled turn.
Ultimately, though, Disappearance at Clifton Hill is sometimes a little too measured and understated for its own good. The washed-out palette meshes awkwardly with Alex Sowinski and Leland Whitty’s over-baked score and the pulse rate never really rises, even as the case comes to a boil. There’s a neat final twist of the knife, though, to ensure that the movie is thoroughly satisfying, despite its flaws.
Dir: Albert Shin
Scr: Albert Shin, James Schultz
Prd: Fraser Ash, Kevin Krikst
DOP: Catherine Lutes
Music: Alex Sowinski, Leland Whitty
Run time: 100 mins
Disappearance at Clifton Hill will be available on digital platforms from 20th July and on DVD from 3rd August.