Niagara Falls’ Clifton Hill has no shortage of haunted houses. In exchange for a few dollars the “World Famous Street of Fun” offers up scary attractions like Frankenstein’s Haunted House, but a new film, “Disappearance at Clifton Hill,” now on VOD, isn’t content with a cheap scare or two, it’s looking to make a deeper, psychological impact. “The haunted houses aren’t actually haunted,” jokes Abby (Tuppence Middleton).
“Downton Abbey’s” Middleton is a woman troubled by a childhood incident. As a little girl on a fishing trip with her parents, she witnessed the kidnapping of a one-eyed boy. Years later, after the death of her mother she returns home to sell the family’s run-down motel, the Rainbow Inn. Sifting through some old photos she comes across some old photos that dredge up memories of the terrible event.
Instead of packing up and leaving town she opens an investigation. “I’m someone who saw it,” she says. “Saw them take him. I was seven. I was there when it happened and I have proof.” When she uncovers the story of some local performers, the Magnificent Moulins, and their missing and presumed dead son she wonders if he could be the one-eyed boy. Her sister Laure (Mindhunter’s Hannah Gross) doesn’t believe her story—Abby is a pathological liar—but local historian and podcaster Walter (David Cronenberg) does. “Do you know what happens when a body hits the bottom of the gorge?” he asks. “Think swallowing a live grenade.” That would explain why no body was ever found, but it opens the door to a conspiracy that leaves Abby questioning her sanity. “There’s a lot of history round these parts,” Walter says, ominously.
With the soft underbelly of Niagara Falls as a backdrop “Disappearance at Clifton Hill” effectively creates an eccentric atmosphere that hangs in the air; never forced, never obvious.
Director Albert Shin allows the city’s offbeat setting, including haunted houses and the uber-kitschy Flying Saucer Restaurant, to infuse itself into the offbeat nature of Abby’s story. Like the city itself, her tale isn’t exactly what it seems on the surface.
Middleton subtly reveals Abby’s complexity. She approaches her investigation with a certain amount of naïve zeal, quickly realizing that her obsession is leading her down some very dark paths. Looking for answers, she is fearless in her search for the truth amid the ambiguity of her memory. Supporting her, in a terrific turn is Cronenberg as the only person who believe she is on to something. It could have been stunt casting to bring in a master of the macabre to play a man who specializes in cataloguing the dark side of life but Cronenberg finds humour in the character while still helping move the story forward.
As a mystery “Disappearance at Clifton Hill” doesn’t have quite enough intrigue but as a character study of a person troubled by long ago events it roars like the waterfall that sits at the heart of its story.