Upon reading the synopsis of Gemma Files’s 2015 novel Experimental Film, I became immediately intrigued, as the premise deals with a mystery surrounding a supposedly cursed movie, and the “cursed movie” trope is one of my favorites in all of horror. I was thinking that maybe this would be something along the lines of John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns, one of the episodes of the Masters of Horror series from the mid-2000s; or perhaps something like Antrum, the 2018 mockumentary that was purportedly about a cursed movie from the 1970s, both of which I was a big fan of.
I had actually heard of Gemma Files before, and I’m fairly sure that I’ve read some of her short fiction at some point. She’s a London-born Canadian writer, and has won several awards for her work. Experimental Film, as a matter of fact, won the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel in 2016, as well as the Sunburst Award for Best Canadian Speculative Fiction (Novel) in the same year.
The story is told from the point of view of a woman named Lois Cairns, who teaches at a film school in Canada and is what the kids today would call a “film nerd.” Likewise, the author of the book, Gemma Files, is also a film historian who wrote a great deal about film, and so she’s using a lot of her own experiences in the Canadian film industry to inform the main character of the story.
The tale spends a great deal of time describing the intricacies of the Canadian film industry and how it differs from that in the United States; because of that, I’d hesitate to recommend it to someone who was completely uninterested in that topic. This book is a mystery and a ghost story, after a fashion, but just know going in that a lot of the narrative is focused on establishing the world these characters inhabit, so if you couldn’t care less about film, then this novel might not be for you. I noticed that although this novel was quite critically acclaimed and had many stellar reviews, people who hated it REALLY hated it, calling it boring and pretentious, with too much extraneous detail about film and not enough story. I’m personally fascinated by independent film, and was interested to learn more about the Canadian side of filmmaking, which was something I wasn’t all that familiar with. But your mileage may vary.
At the beginning of the book, Lois is essentially underemployed; she’s been writing for film magazines as a freelance gig, but those seem to be drying up, as the Canadian film industry is obviously not really big enough or moneyed enough to sustain someone who writes about it for a living. Lois also has an autistic son named Clark, and a contentious relationship with her mother, so those are two more stressful things in her life that she’s forced to deal with.
One night, Lois is at a film festival, covering it for a small magazine that actually isn’t going to be paying for her article. While she’s there, she sees this weird short film that was made by a guy named Wrob Barney, a wealthy douche who desperately wants to be a filmmaker of note, but is basically a dilettante with little talent to back up his aspirations. He’s known to take credit for other people’s stuff and to even outright steal the work of others, but is rich enough that he always gets away with it.
So Lois is quite surprised that one of the short films Wrob is showing at the festival is actually quite alluring and ingenious; it’s sort of like a film within a film. While Wrob apparently made the frame story of the movie himself, the inner film was made very early in the twentieth century by a woman named Iris Whitcomb, who is something of a mysterious figure in Canadian film history, as it’s believed she may be the first female filmmaker the country produced.
Iris Whitcomb made these very creepy short films on silver nitrate stock, which is extremely flammable and caused numerous fires back in the early days of the film industry (incidentally, this is also the reason why so few films from that era survive to this day). Iris also had a son named Hyatt who disappeared, and after that event, Iris was only ever seen in mourning clothes. That is, until she too vanished, about two years after her son went missing. I’m not sure if this is the case, but I thought the plot point of Iris disappearing off a train was perhaps a reference to the real-life Louis Le Prince, who invented a very early movie camera and likewise vanished from a train in September of 1890. A bunch of conspiracy theories about his disappearance sprung up in the ensuing century, including one that implies Thomas Edison might have had him murdered to eliminate competition.
Anyway, Lois is interested enough in the short film Wrob unearthed to approach him about it; though Wrob is showing the movies as his own, he admits that he simply found them and is “sampling” them into his own work. Lois, in fact, is so enthralled by them that she decides she wants to delve deeper into the meaning of the films and whether Iris Whitcomb actually made them, and write a book about her findings. She is actually able to secure a grant in order to write said book, which of course is a big boost to her previously meager financial situation. She’s even able to hire a research assistant, a former student named Safie, to help her out.
While Lois and Safie begin their investigation, Wrob decides he’s going to use his wealth and connections in order to sabotage Lois’s book project at every turn, since he sees the Iris Whitcomb films as “his,” and resents Lois potentially stealing his thunder. He feels that Lois wouldn’t even have gotten the idea for the book if it hadn’t been for him, and he isn’t going to let her forget that.
Meanwhile, we learn more and more about the elusive Iris Whitcomb and the mansion she lived in, called Vinegar House. We also find out more information about the six eerie short films the woman supposedly made. These films are all thematically similar, mainly featuring a field with people working in it, who then see this strange woman dressed all in white. The woman also appears dazzling, as though she is covered with mirrored shards. Lois and Safie eventually discover that the woman in the films is based upon a figure from Eastern European legend known as Lady Midday, a lesser god who appears to field workers between the minute and the hour of twelve noon and punishes those who are shirking their duties by cutting their heads off with her giant scissors.
So Lois is investigating why Iris Whitcomb made six films about this same legend, and why the films are all pretty much the same, but with subtle differences. As the investigation continues, Lois begins suffering physical symptoms, such as passing out and having seizures, and eventually starts to believe that Lady Midday might not only be real, but also might be responsible for the disappearances of Iris Whitcomb and her son.
Overall, I found this something of an odd book, and I admit it took me a while to really get into it, especially since it’s front-loaded with so much information about the Canadian film industry, as well as a long buildup of Lois’s complicated relationships with her son and her mother. It does take a while to get to the creepy ghost stuff, and I was just on the verge of getting impatient with it, so take that into consideration. It’s definitely on the more “literary” side of the horror spectrum, but it had a strange juxtaposition of tones; when the narrative is focused on the history of Iris Whitcomb and the description of the legend behind the films, the prose is quite lyrical and beautiful, but the passages from Lois’s point of view (which technically the whole book is, since it’s in the first person) reflect her abrasive and somewhat bitchy personality, and at times the two styles don’t really seen to jibe. Lois could also be accused of being unlikable (I didn’t find her so, but I can see how someone would), as she is pretty free in expressing her frustrations about raising her autistic son, and seems in general to be a fairly unhappy person.
This wasn’t my favorite book that I’ve reviewed here by a long stretch, and it did try my patience a few times in the first two acts, but the creepy and horrific third act, I feel, really redeemed the whole enterprise to such a degree that I wanted to go back and read the book again in light of how the story ended. I would recommend this to fans of slow-burn, literary horror who are also film geeks, but keep in mind that it takes a while to get to the horror.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.