The struggle for survival is one theme a good number of horror movies depend on to create a sense of tension. Will the protagonist survive a hideous situation, bloodied and battered but still in one piece? It takes imagination, character and, yes, even heart to construct a scenario which pushes through these obvious concerns and into the more nebulous territory beyond. Call it “spiritual horror,” if you must, terror which reaches down into who we are, threatening our very sense of what matters. Engaging with this dimension of the Weird can allow a horror story to develop into more than just a fright fest, as the nature of characters mutilates the nature of reality. Pieces such as these can reach levels of sublimity and psychological depth which make for long-lasting impact. Christopher Smith’s Triangle is a tight, disturbing and exceedingly weird manifestation of the spiritual horror sub-genre.
Smith started his career strong with the movie Creep, about a monstrous figure using the London Underground as its own personal abattoir. He followed that gory piece with Severance, a dark comedy about a team-building trip which goes disastrously wrong. Most recently, he released Black Death, a historical horror set during the Black Plague. Triangle, however, is where he shines, as both a writer of complex stories and a director with unnerving (and unswerving) vision.
Triangle is about a stressed young waitress, Jess (Melissa George), whose life revolves around her autistic son. When a customer she fancies invites her for a daytrip on his yacht, Jess embraces the chance to escape the tedium of work and the frustrations of raising a child with special needs. Jess joins Greg (Michael Dorman) and four of his friends as they set off on calm waters and clear skies. She seems to have overcome her trepidations about leaving her son behind, seems ready to grasp this one, sunny day for herself. Greg shows more interest in her than in the more relaxed, confident young woman his best friends are trying to set him up with. It promises to be a lovely trip. Then, a freak storm rolls in shortly after the yacht receives a garbled distress signal. Within minutes, tragedy strikes the small group and Greg’s yacht has capsized. Stranded in eerie doldrums, these friends are in serious trouble until a massive ocean liner slides by. After boarding this seemingly deserted ship, Jess and her new friends discover a fate more terrible, and far stranger, than death at sea. The film does involve some blood-shed, though it largely avoids gore. It does lead up to one of the weirdest acts of violence I’ve seen in a film: a brutal, quickly cut shot which haunts me every time I think of it.
Within ten minutes of the appearance of that ocean-liner, the Aeolus, Smith pulls a reversal which leaves some viewers wondering how the movie isn’t already over. That is where the real fun begins. The trouble with reviewing a movie like Triangle is that it should be experienced with as little foreknowledge as possible. Not only are the film’s shocks (of which there are many, and intelligent shocks at that) more effective if they are encountered innocently, the emotional complexities underlying Jess and her plight will resonate more strongly if viewers come to this situation with as few preconceptions as possible.
Smith’s cinematography lends the film an eerie, dreamlike mood, but it is also far from being murky. A lucid, even chilly aesthetic predominates, which provides a nice contrast with the often confusing situation unraveling around poor Jess. The appearance of the Aeolus, a massive ship emerging from brilliant sunlight, is one of my favorites from the movie. Contextually, this should be a moment of relief, but the shot and the music which accompanies it tells another story. Smith peppers Triangle with allusions to works which deal with similar themes. Samuel Tyler Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is slyly (though not gratuitously) referenced. Coleridge’s story (about a sailor paying a heavy and supernatural price for what appeared to be a minor offense) may seem a strange companion to this film, but Triangle’s third act fits both texts together. He also pays homage to Kubrick’s version of The Shining stylistically and with playful details. The Aeolus certainly bears some resemblances to the Overlook Hotel in all those shots of its long hallways and ornate rooms. The ship’s moniker, or rather the most famous myth attached to the god whose name it bears, has a definite relevance to the fate of these characters. A mark of Smith’s maturity is his use of allusions (such as the latter) which he draws attention to explicitly, as well as others (Coleridge’s poem) which he leaves to the viewer to decode.
Triangle weaves an eerie, complex tale about a young woman who wanted an escape from her problems, just for a while. Through psychological and supernatural layers of narrative, the film offers ample material for discussion, not to mention many reasons to watch it again. The acting is strong, running from relaxed to flat-out panicked. Melissa George, in particular, stands out in a role any number of actors would have butchered with either too laconic a delivery or with a collapse into bathos and scenery-chewing.
However, it is the “genre” facet of the piece, the spoiler you will not be reading in this review, which makes Triangle stick in one’s mind. It provides an itch many viewers will find themselves compelled to scratch for days. A film which can stand up to repeat viewings is a fine (and rare) thing. One, however, which will repay such repeat viewings with something more than the pleasures of familiarity is a true rarity. Triangle actually deforms that sense of being comfortable in a story one has already seen before through a process of “retroactive defamiliarization” (Thomson, 2011:144). Simply put, the work forces you to reconsider it in a new light, to reread it as something stranger than you first thought. Triangle accomplishes this with ease, is, in fact, a model for how to use this “device” for more than a cheap “gotcha” moment, changing what may have been a decent idea for a thriller into a disturbing meditation on death, fate and seagulls. Whether Jess’s fate comes about because she dared hope for more or because she tries too hard to hold onto the past is a question viewers will have to answer for themselves. One of the many beauties of Triangle is that it continues to resist easy answers while simultaneously offering visceral and immediate pleasures.
 Thomson, Iain. Heidegger, Art, and Postmodernity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 144 – 147.