London Film Festival 2020: ROSE: A LOVE STORY

Experiencing Jennifer Sheridan’s unsettling, surprisingly moving debut feature Rose: A Love Story is like watching a very bleak version of Santa Clarita Diet. Where that show (which was glorious and cancelled far too early by Netflix) explored the ‘reality’ of living with a normal person who just happens to be a zombie, Sheridan’s film, scripted by its leading man Matt Stokoe, puts a similar spin on the old-as-time vampire myth. Yet here the everyday challenges of living with a B-movie monster are not spun into a satirical commentary on suburban living but treated with much more earnest realism. The result is a drama full of love, pain, and just a few scares.

A Love Story

The subtitle is important for this one. Rose: A Love Story, is very much that: a painful, deeply felt exploration of the love between two people. They are Sam (Stokoe) and Rose (Sophie Rundle); he is a big, gruff, caring man who has but one mission in life: to look after his wife. She is the sweeter, quieter half of the pair, and also happens to be a vampire.

In a lot of ways they are a normal couple when we meet them, bickering lovingly and clearly devoted to each other, but there are a few differences between them and the couple next door. If Rose goes outside she’ll die; if she gets too hungry she becomes a feral killer; when Sam eats meat and two veg, she eats mushed up eels full of her husband’s blood. That kind of thing.

London Film Festival 2020: ROSE: A LOVE STORY
source: London Film Festival

All of these restraints mean that Sam and Rose have out of necessity crafted a delicately balanced refuge for themselves in near-perfect isolation out in the wilderness. Despite the fact that they seem to have Rose’s condition under wraps, life still appears to be a struggle for the pair. Such a heavily one-sided dependence is bound to put a strain on any relationship, not to mention the physical challenges that come with having to live off-grid. All the while, you sense it is only a matter of time before their peaceful seclusion is interrupted by someone from the outside.

Where the film gets high marks is in the central relationship between Rose and Sam. The bond between them, brought to life by real-world couple Rundle and Stokoe, is utterly believable. Sam’s character is marked by his utter, unwavering devotion to Rose, making him both immensely sympathetic and frustratingly stubborn. Rose’s conflict is more internal, as she struggles with the dual burden of not ruining Sam’s life, or violently ending others.

Like many a scary movie, Rose takes its time setting up this background information and character detail, accompanied by the odd creepy noise. The audience then waits for the film to go ‘full horror’, or in this case: waits, and waits, and waits.

A Horror? Or Just Horrifying?

When receiving its world premiere at this year’s London Film Festival, Rose was placed in the ‘Cult’ section of the program alongside Natalie Erika James‘ chilling Relic, and Brandon Cronenberg playing in his dad’s body horror sand-pit with Possessor. Such categorisation would suggest that Rose, too, is best described as a horror film. I’m not sure that’s right.

London Film Festival 2020: ROSE: A LOVE STORY
source: London Film Festival

I’m not about to get into “is Die Hard a Christmas movie” territory, but it says a lot about the film that even when Sam and Rose’s two-person bubble is breached, the film does not descend into blood, gore or jump scares. It remains, almost entirely, an intensely focussed relationship drama, just with an added layer of permanent dread. Sheridan takes her time in the film’s build-up, so much so in fact that it is not really built up. This is for the most part a film concerned entirely with love between two people, regardless of whether they crave blood or not.

There is one scene in particular, a “date night” about halfway through, that at once warms and breaks the heart; from that point on the film has an added weight. The tension of a horror film is there, but without the regular catharsis of a jump scare. We know that our heroes cannot live like this forever, whether they survive the film or not, and therefore the film is fraught not with fear in the traditional sense, but with fear of what is to come.

London Film Festival 2020: ROSE: A LOVE STORY
source: London Film Festival

By making the audience sit uncomfortably through multiple close-calls and armageddon prep, Sheridan and co. allow us to empathise with Sam and Rose’s life. By the time the film’s close comes, we have shared in the characters’ exhaustion, worn out from being on red alert 24/7. We are left not hiding behind the sofa, but unsettled by the lengths to which love can be pushed and fear can be felt.

Death Matters

Often in the horror movie world, death doesn’t seem to matter all that much. Either bodies are strewn across the celluloid for kicks or, especially in the case of undead flicks featuring vampires and/or zombies, the possibility of immortality removes death’s real meaning. Either characters die and we don’t really care as long as the hero is alright, or death is not the be-all and end-all, and therefore loses its power.

Here, however, adding support to the notion that this is not really a genre film, death matters an awful lot. We are wholly invested in two, and then three, characters, and the death of anyone of them could be devastating. It’s character drama with a higher than average threat thrown in, making the horror elements far weightier. This is about as close to realism as a vampire film can get, so the possibility of death feels real a tragedy. Rose is not a scarier film for its approach, but it is a less superficial, and far more moving one.

Whether death does eventually rear its ugly head is for me to know and you to find out. For a long time, I thought I could predict the path that Rose was following; it turned out I knew roughly where the film was going, but not how it would get there. The very final scenes suffer from a slight crisis of confidence I feel, becoming more generic than the film that preceded them but not to the extent that the film’s overall power is undone. With strong performances and boldly deliberate pacing, even the odd misstep can’t stop the fact that Rose really packs a punch.

Rose: A Love Story puts a new twist on a familiar horror myth. What are the best other cinematic reinventions of horror tropes? Let us know in the comments!


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