“Make Up,” an unsettling new English psychological thriller now playing in theatres, won’t make you sit bolt upright in your chair, but it may have you looking around furtively, wondering who, if anyone, is lurking behind you.
Set in a desolate strip of land in South West England, “Make Up” takes place in a Cornish holiday park in the off season. The empty caravans are tended to by caretaker Shirley (Lisa Palfrey), an odd woman with a rasp in her throat, and her crew of workers, including Tom (Joseph Quinn). When Tom’s girlfriend, 18-year-old Ruth (Molly Windsor), makes the fourteen hour trip to the park from her home in Derry, she comes hoping to see her boyfriend and possibly score a job.
Despite a frosty welcome from Shirley and Tom, she stays on, learning the ropes of the job. When she isn’t working shutting down the camp for the winter, she hangs out with a disinterested Tom and her only friend, camp worker and part-time beautician Jade (Stefanie Martini). Soon, however, the day-today is broken up by strange discoveries. Red lipstick kisses on Tom’s mirror and unexplained red hairs in his bed arouse jealousy. As Ruth falls further and further down the rabbit hole of her own paranoia, she begins to question everything, even her own sexuality.
The isolation of “Make Up’s” location creates an atmosphere that writer-director Claire Oakley, in her feature debut, milks for all it is worth. Strange, unsettling sounds from nature break the night’s stillness and the park itself is a smörgåsbord of ethereal sights. Think “The Shining’s” Overlook Hotel, but with wheels. Ruth sees odd, tormented figures shrouded in the plastic wrap they use to protect the newly fumigated trailers and the primordial power of the sea is apparent, even when you can’t see the water. It adds up to an atmosphere that feels ripe for things that go bump in the night… or at least things that wear a red wig and run around at night.
“Make Up” can’t rightly be pigeonholed. It’s not an outright body horror, ghost story or thriller. Instead it’s an exercise in dread, the feeling you get when you know something is terribly wrong but can’t quite place your finger on it. Oakley employs plainspoken dialogue to tell the tale but uses intense sound design (be careful of this one is you have Misophonia) and interesting photography to heighten the experience. Put together, it’s a redefinition of horror as a metaphor for coming-of-age can be and a self-assured and exciting directorial debut.