Across The River (Oltre il guado)

Italy (2013) Dir. Lorenzo Bianchini

“If you go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise”

No teddy bears picnic but slightly more natural animals in their natural habitat – except something rather nasty is slaughtering them in the night. This is the premise for this low budget horror from Italian director Lorenzo Bianchini.

Wildlife biologist Marco Contrada (Renzo Gariup) journeys by RV to a remote countryside near the Slovenian border to conduct research on the behaviour of wild animals, by trapping one and attaching a camera to it to film their activities. He finds a fox which he sets up for observation but after the first night it runs out of his signal range, which Marco tracks down to across the river to an abandoned derelict village.

He travels crosses the river, finding no other signs of life and only more ravaged animal carcasses. That night the rainfall is so horrific Marco is forced to stay in an empty house but in the morning, he finds his RV has gone. Checking the latest footage from the fox, he sees two twin girls hiding in the woods, whilst among the ruins of an old school, he finds an old class photo with the faces of two twin girls blanked out.

I’ve probably gone into a bit too much detail for the plot synopsis but I have a thousand word limit and if I didn’t pad it out, it would likely be only three lines long. Plus Across The River is only 87 minutes long and since horror films don’t relay need much plotting this might explain why it is based on such a flimsy story outline.

Yet this doesn’t excuse the fact that for the first 30-plus minutes practically nothing of any real note happens. Some might attribute this to scene setting and mood building which it accomplishes but Marco remains a blank slate to us – who he is, why he works alone, what he is conducting the research he does, etc. He looks like a tough customer but once the scares start this façade is soon quashed, not that we can blame him.

Looking at reviews of his two previous films, Lorenzo Bianchini is known for his brisk, low-budget horrors, with praise for his ability to create nerve shredding atmospheres and genuinely chilling scares despite the cost limitations. There are flashes of this here but Bianchini makes us wait for them – again, normal practice for horror, but the swift run time demands a little more haste in that department.

Appearing intermittently are an elderly couple (Marco Marchese and Lidia Zabrieszach) who, for the most part, don’t appear to have any relevance to the main plot – the old man’s odd behaviour and his testy wife don’t tell us much either. Even when their purpose is revealed later on, it isn’t really much of one beyond providing much belated exposition about the village and the spooky twins.

Even this feels clumsy despite being inventive – the old man digs out some old cine film of the village also featuring the unsettling twins shot by Italian soldiers, which he shows to the recently arrived rescuers sent to find Marco. Apparently, he is so well known that his disappearance makes the national news and warrants an official search party to bring him home. If only they knew what awaits them…

Marco is also going into this blind and with little to protect him besides a shotgun. With his RV gone, few changes of clothing and limited supplies, it is him versus the elements and whatever is out there savaging the wildlife. With most of the action taking place at night, the aesthetic is very dark and wet, to the point even we feel cold and damp just watching Marco suffer.

That Marco is so nervy in his reactions whenever he hears an odd sound or feels the strange presence of something otherworldly, immediately grabbing his shotgun or simply running for it, is actually quite refreshing from the usual gung-ho alpha male looking to justify his high levels of testosterone. Marco wasn’t always so easily disturbed but being alone in a crumbling village with no explanation for the noises and occurrence around him is enough to put the willies up anyone.

It has to be said Bianchini shows how he earned his reputation for delivering palpably chills and scares, well timed and often creative, such as a white line mysteriously being drawn on a black board in the school despite no-one else being in the room. He doesn’t over do them once they start, allowing Marco’s natural paranoia, and the brooding silence routinely broken by the torrential rain to sell the terror in the interim.

We should be thankful for this however, as the deadly duo presumably responsible for Marco’s misery or largely ineffective in their roles due to only being seen in film clips or in Marco’s nightmares. When they are shown in full, their ghoulish faces unfortunately look like something from a fancy dress shop, the make-up is that thick and heavy and even more risible when briefly seen in colour.

Because we don’t know what is driving the twins beyond being outcast due to a curse, we only have the after effect of their shenanigans to illustrate their malevolence as no direct action or even gore is shown on screen. Thus they are actually only superficially scary despite Bianchini’s best efforts present them as rivals to other modern day spooks – oh, and they are blonde and not dark haired as per the DVD artwork too.

Essentially a one man show we have to credit Renzo Gariup for committing himself to the role of Marco, whilst the presentation is impressive enough for a low budget affair. But, there is genuinely about 20 minutes of a decent horror film to be found in Across The River, leaving us with 67 minutes that don’t do justice for whatever ideas Bianchini had for this tale.