Disappearance at Clifton Hill is set in the city of Niagara Falls in Ontario during the bleak and grey off-season; where the streets are desolate, magic shows are filled with empty seats and the large neon signs blink for no one. It follows Abby (Tuppence Middleton), who we learn almost straight away is a fantasist and a compulsive liar with some deep-seated psychological issues stemming from a childhood trauma that is shown in the opening scene; she witnessed a young boy getting kidnapped. She’s only ever told her sister Laure (Hannah Gross) about what happened, who is never entirely convinced of what Abby saw. Abby’s psychological state— specifically the lies she tells, shape the film from the opening shot.
Abby is brought back to her hometown after the death of her mother, when she inherits the Rainbow Inn Motel in the tourist district Clifton Hill which is set to be sold off to infamous local developers — that Abby desperately tries to fight. It’s clear as she walks through her childhood home and town that there are memories everywhere for her — seared into the walls and the streets. This is intensified by the eerie atmosphere that is built around the town; of an empty, soulless place with a dark secret at its core. This keeps the narrative engaging and makes us want to unravel the towns history and dark mysteries with Abby. The memory of what she witnessed rears its head once she finds a box of pictures from the day of the kidnapping and she therefore takes it upon herself to investigate this abduction; becoming the unhinged, paranoid amateur sleuth that is typical of modern mystery films. The type whose increasingly erratic behaviour, with dream scenes and possible hallucinations, makes the audience question her sanity. She has worried but unsympathetic family members who implore her to “get her life sorted” that don’t indulge her suspicions and a sister who is her polar opposite, uptight and stern, who is sceptical but still an ally.
And that is where the film’s archetypal characters just begin; from the dismissive and useless policeman that she met the night before, David Cronenberg’s podcaster and town historian who explains his theories of a deep conspiracy in the town and is described in the film as one of the “tinfoil hat wearing crazies”, and then the rich property developer who is a main suspect. He soon develops into an exaggerated, cartoon-like villain half-way through the film — which may be more reflective of Abby’s psyche than reality — but the dull writing and flat performance makes this character unconvincing. Unfortunately, there is nothing subversive about these cliches; nothing has been added to give these archetypes new depths and therefore it feels as if this film has been made a hundred times before.
As the narrative untangles, it becomes more outlandish and less believable to the point that we frequently question the reality of what we are seeing. These aspects make the film more enjoyable as the final act unfurls but the ending, and what (if we’re following cliches) should be a ‘big reveal’, feels anticlimactic and deflated. What could have unravelled to be a dizzying exploration of a deeply troubled woman’s psychology and how her lies and deceit ruined her and everyone around her; the film became too entangled by it’s own mystery. It chose in the end to focus on it’s elaborate villains and an unexciting and disappointing reveal.
Disappearance at Clifton Hill is out in select cinemas and on Digital now
by Madeleine Sinclair
Madeleine Sinclair (she/her) is a film student at the University of Winchester currently working on a dissertation on women killers in giallo films. She’s a big horror fan (the tackier the better) and also loves sci-fi and fantasy. Right now, she thinks her favourite films are Pan’s Labyrinth, The Wicker Man and Deep Red but she is also very indecisive. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @madeleinia and Letterboxd here.