Set 45,000 years ago, when Homo sapiens were making incursions into the lands of the Neanderthals, Andrew Cumming’s horror thriller The Origin depicts a small tribe coming up against a malefic entity in unknown and inhospitable environs.
Beyah (Safia Oakley-Green) and her family have wandered far and wide in search of good hunting grounds and warm caves to dwell in. Reaching a tough-going landscape of mountains and rugged hillsides, and slowly starving, they begin to feel like they’re being watched. Then, they are attacked by a shadowy menace. Picked off one by one in the manner of a classical slasher, Beyah and another survivor turn the tables on the nightmare creature and discover a shocking truth.
The Origin is ambitious in scope. It’s a film that oozes primordial atmosphere: the skies are permanently grey and brooding, the terrain is mostly razor-sharp rocks and boulders, endless wet forests, dank caves where here be monsters. Its visual grandeur is impressive. Another asset is the score by Adam Janota Bzowski – all wailing, droning, quaking, atonal arrangements – providing menacing landscape shots with plenty of intensity and foreboding. What’s more, the bone-crunching sound design gives scenes of horror a satisfying nastiness. But it’s the type of film where, for every step forwards, there’s a step backwards.
Ruth Greenberg’s script is intriguing enough: a creature feature that morphs into a tale of human tragedy with universal and historical resonance, detailing our propensity for savage acts of unthinking violence, which of course is hardwired into us and echoes down the centuries. But the film lacks aesthetic fluidity and the pacing is sluggish, the story allowed to plod along – much like the tribe searching for a home. Meanwhile, the Paul Greengrass-like editing at points of action, complete with blurring handheld camera running through the trees like the clappers, is an assault on the eyeballs.
The Origin really needed a Mel Gibson or Nicolas Winding Refn-type director to elevate it: to create something a bit more muscular, visceral, impactful and exciting. Instead, it appears Cummings has no particular skill or liking for its horror elements: the jump scares are poorly-executed, and it feels at times like the film is going through the genre motions. What fascinates him more is the land, the mythic air, the drama of people rushing in without thinking, the recreation of a point in human history rarely depicted on screen.
Visit the BFI London Film Festival page to delve deeper into the wealth of films on show this year.
Martyn Conterio | @martynconterio