Though the Brussels Fantastic Film Festival is renowned worldwide, Belgium has never had much of a horror tradition, occasional excursions like Harry Kümel's gruesome twosome DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS and MALPERTUIS notwithstanding. Unlike neighboring country the Netherlands, whose recent spate of splatter offerings cheerfully cannibalized American genre products, my homeland's modest attempts are closer in spirit to what the French categorize as "le fantastique", eerie tales of events that defy explanation that creep under your skin and haunt you for days after-wards. Not to claim that we don't look for influences elsewhere, I will admit to a defensible degree of chauvinism in that Belgian filmmakers have incorporated them better into personal to the point of idiosyncratic narratives. Young director Pieter Van Hees made a splash with his mean-spirited short BLACK XXX-MAS, purposefully packing tons of extreme effects into its brief running time. If he were to extend that style to feature length, the results would be close to unbearable. Thankfully, LINKEROEVER proves a complete departure, taking its time to set up a recognizable situation with alarming elements seeping in from the edges. A directorial debut, the film came to pass as part of the TV-sponsored "Faits Divers" cycle which had until now limited itself to light comedies like VERLENGD WEEKEND or VIDANGE PERDUE and worthy social dramas like DENNIS VAN RITA or DE HEL VAN TANGER. Series producer Jan Verheyen is one of the keenest commercial minds in a country that still frowns upon such worldly preoccupations when it comes to art forms, preferring instead to keep its head solidly lodged up its rectum and lose money on endeavors no one but the most tragically hip care to see. Fortunately, the tide seems to be changing and thanks to the likes of Verheyen, whose movies actually make a profit thereby opening up possibilities for other talented filmmakers, our cinematic culture is being enriched and diversified, no longer a source of ridicule.
Getting off my high horse and back to LINKEROEVER, Van Hees has liberally borrowed elements from Roman Polanski's THE TENANT and ROSEMARY'S BABY, Robin Hardy's one-off THE WICKER MAN and the recent glut of J-Horror (DARK WATER especially) for a story that still manages to considerable feat of seeming authentic and somewhat unpredictable even to the seasoned viewer's eye. At least some of the film's success must be attributed to its location, the left bank of the River Schelde in Antwerp the title refers to. A place of seclusion in the Middle Ages for criminal and excommunicated elements of the thriving city, its quiet, almost desolate atmosphere could not be further removed from the metropolis's bustle to this very day. I used to have friends living there (a gay couple, one of them chairperson of the Lowlands Abba fan club, and like their idols since split up) and always felt it to be the ideal place to shoot a horror movie. Just a matter of time then. Driven track runner Marie (an astonishing performance by frequently nude don't worry, it's justified ! first time actress Eline Kuppens, whose radiant smile will remind you of Rachel McAdams) suffers an injury which forces her out of competition for a while and finds she has but little of a life outside of sports. Her dotty, health food store running mom (wonderful character actress Sien Eggers) means well but drives her up the walls so she seeks solace in a torrid affair with semi-accidentally met mystery hunk Bobby, played very well by handsome Matthias Schoenaerts, son of late local theater legend Julien. She moves into his apartment on the left bank and while all seems fine at first, matters grow progressively more disquieting when Marie learns that the flat's former owner disappeared without a trace and that her boyfriend's the head honcho of a Freemason type community that has been active since Medieval times called the Dragon's Guild. Their symbol is a dragon biting its own tail, which Bobby tellingly describes as "each beginning is a new ending" while you would logically expect it to be the other way round. Plagued by increasingly bizarre visions, some of them apparently involving a black well in the basement, Marie starts missing out on her period and her wound grows ever more grotesque
Eschewing expected shocks for most of its running time, LINKEROEVER slowly initiates audiences into its outwardly normal but seriously askew universe through identification with its strong, sympathetic heroine. Secrets are never revealed to us before Marie learns of them, leading to an ending few will see coming. Speaking of which, and without giving away to much, this must surely be one of the most hauntingly beautiful codas in recent memory. Stubbornly refusing to make sense on a logical, cerebral level, it does so perfectly from an emotional point of view. What's more, with all the darkness that has preceded it, this actually lets viewers leave the theater with a strange sense of elation approaching happiness though this is by no means a traditional happy ending ! Did I arouse your curiosity ? Good ! Van Hees beautifully sustains the mood of impending dread by all means at his disposal. Cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis makes splendid use of the cloud-packed skies adding to the oppressive atmosphere in exquisitely effective contrast with the golden light that dominates the latter part of the picture. Music is sparingly and equally effectively employed, with a jarringly edited party sequence tearing your senses to shreds. As with everything else here, this aural and visual assault serves a definite purpose, to pull away all vestiges of the familiar for characters and viewers alike. In interviews, the director and his entourage have claimed this film as some sort of "dry run" for their upcoming DIRTY MIND with comedian Wim Helsen. If so, that should be awesome. A remarkably assured work, LINKEROEVER already stands as one of the finest films of 2008 right out of the gate.