The British film Writers Retreat feels like a throwback — somewhere between a more violent Agatha Christie murder mystery and a less stylized giallo — but one progressive element it has going for it is the fact that the main protagonist is black. And gay. So, you know, two birds with one stone and all that.
Camilla Beeput stars as Zandra, a bestselling novelist suffering from writer’s block who takes a gig teaching a multi-day workshop for eight or so aspiring authors on isolated Kilton Island, which daily gets cut off from the mainland due to the high tide. In true modern horror fashion, it’s established early on that there’s also no Internet or cell phone reception on the island, so let the murders begin!
As a mysterious figure begins bumping off the writers one by one, the red herring-filled script hints that practically everyone has a dark side that could make them the prime suspect. This old-fashioned whodunit premise provides some nostalgic entertainment, but it struggles to overcome the mundanity inherent in a plot that revolves around roundtable literary criticism. Scenes of people reading and discussing their writing assignments are scary only if they’re part of my recurring nightmare about coming woefully unprepared to my English Comp class.
The setting — the same real-life location as The Woman in Black — is prime for a story like this, but it fails to take full advantage of the locale, and the scares are delivered in tepid fashion; even the jump scares don’t elicit any reaction. It doesn’t help that the characters suffer from H.V.S. (Helpless Victim Syndrome), as it seems like they could easily band together to overpower the killer at any point.
The film’s primary strength, then, is the cast. Beeput does a fine job in a rare instance of a black “final girl” (doubly rare as a black, lesbian final girl), balancing the requisite sense of fear with the strength and resourcefulness of a survivor. She’s a bit posh, but that’s part of the character; a racist taxi driver calls her a slur because he detects a sense of superiority in the way she…is able to read?
This is the only overtly racial moment in Writers Retreat (granted, the mere fact that Zandra is black is racially significant), but while the scene doesn’t mean much to the plot as a whole, I’m glad it was included. Even if race isn’t a major factor in a plot like this, that doesn’t mean the script should completely shy away from it in as recklessly color blind a manner as possible. Moments like this reflect the reality that racism is always lurking, whether you see it or not, and like the killer in the story, it pops up unexpectedly to stab you in the throat with a rusty screwdriver.