As I’ve probably mentioned before, I don’t really have any kind of scientific basis for choosing books or movies to watch and review for this blog; I essentially just browse around through the horrors on offer on all of my various streaming services (or on my Kindle, in the case of books), and pick whatever looks interesting at that particular time and for whatever mood I happen to be in. So when I came across a little film called Isolation while I was scrolling through the available movies on Shudder, I picked it solely because it starred Essie Davis (probably best known to horror fans for 2014’s The Babadook) and Sean Harris (who was in the excellent Possum from 2018, and played Joy Division’s Ian Curtis in one of my favorite films of all time, Michael Winterbottom’s 2002 homage to the influential Manchester music scene, 24 Hour Party People). I didn’t realize until researching this post that Isolation is damn near two decades old at this point; it was released directly to DVD way the hell back in 2005. To its credit, I had no idea while I was watching it that it was that old, so it threw me for a loop for a bit when I discovered that fact.
Anyway, Isolation is an Irish film, helmed by Billy O’Brien in his directorial debut, and it took the Best Director and Best Film prizes at that year’s Fantastic Fest. O’Brien went on to make 2016’s I Am Not a Serial Killer, starring Christopher Lloyd, which I haven’t seen but looks intriguing. And for a first feature, Isolation is pretty solid; it’s nothing to necessarily go completely bonkers about, but it’s an atmospheric, low-key film with great acting performances, a dour and grim tone, some decent grue, a mystery that keeps you invested during the entire runtime, and a satisfying (if slightly predictable) payoff. To get an idea of what the movie is like, picture John Carpenter’s The Thing and Ridley Scott’s Alien being agriculturally cross-bred with a 1970s-era eco-horror, but without any of the unintentional hilarity that last clause implies, and you’re most of the way there. The only real beef I have with the movie, in fact, is the title, which is pretty generic and doesn’t really have all that much to do with the plot, other than the whole thing taking place on a remote farm with only a handful of characters.
Our nominal main protagonist is Dan (John Lynch), who owns the farm in question, a failing operation way out in the back end of beyond, Ireland. We learn early in the movie that Dan has been taking money from a genetic science outfit that’s experimenting with one of his cows. For a long time, we don’t know exactly what the experiment entails, but because this is a horror movie, you know whatever the shit is, it ain’t gonna be good.
This suspicion is confirmed shortly afterward during a visit from Orla (Essie Davis), the veterinarian who is assisting the main scientist John (Marcel Iureș), and possibly also fucking him? I think it’s further implied that Dan and Orla used to be a thing too because Dan seems awfully upset about Orla’s new situation vis-à-vis maybe knocking wellies with the scientist, but maybe I’m reading too much into it.
So while Orla has her hand strategically inserted in the test cow’s cooch one afternoon, the presumed baby cow within seems to bite her, which for those not familiar with cows and their offspring, is not generally something that an in-utero calf would be doing. Dan blows it off, thinking maybe Orla just cut her hand on something, but Orla isn’t really sure, and wonders if John’s still-unrevealed experiment is going drastically sideways. (Spoiler alert: yes.)
Meanwhile, a wild card element is introduced in the form of two travelers, Jamie (Sean Harris) and his girlfriend Mary (Ruth Negga), who are on the run from Mary’s disapproving brothers and have parked their caravan right on the periphery of Dan’s land. Because the experiment being conducted on the farm is supposed to be top secret, John wants the kids out of there before they see something they shouldn’t; Dan isn’t really a big fan of them being there either, so he gives them a day to clear out.
That night, though, the experimented-upon cow goes into labor, and Dan finds that he can’t extricate the calf from its mother by himself because the little bugger is stuck. He’s forced to enlist Jamie to help with the operation, which is successful…at least up to a point. The calf is born, but it’s a wee bit bitey, and when vet Orla arrives, she notes that the calf’s teeth are severely malformed, so much so that they appear to be fangs.
At this point, you might be thinking to yourself, as I was, why didn’t they call this movie Mad Cow? It is gonna be a killer cow movie, right? I actually wasn’t sure how I felt about the concept of a killer cow movie, especially played as straight as this movie plays it. But as the story unfolded, I found myself relieved that the movie didn’t end up being called Mad Cow, because come on, that would have been a bit silly for a movie as serious as this one, and besides, there’s actually something a bit more insidious than beastly bovines going on; Isolation, in fact, eventually becomes something of an infection-style horror, but with a mad-scientist-monster-movie angle to it, if that makes any sense.
I don’t want to spoil too much about what the experiment involves and what exactly went wrong with all of the wanton genetic engineering that John was tinkering with in poor Bessie’s womb, but suffice it to say that the five people stuck on this godforsaken farm are in for a pretty bad time overall.
Isolation is a fairly gripping narrative with obvious nods to The Thing in particular, and I really liked the more modern, serious take on the eco-horror films of the 1970s, which honestly started to get a little ridiculous toward the end (Night of the Lepus, anyone?). The cast is small and the characters don’t actually get a hell of a lot of development, but there’s just enough there to keep you invested in them as people as they try to figure out what’s going on and how they can stop it. All the acting is outstanding, which is unsurprising given the pedigrees of those involved.
While the story isn’t anything new and the ending will not be a surprise to anyone with just a passing interest in horror movies, the entire film is solidly constructed and builds up some great suspense, especially in the long lead-up to finding out the details of the experiment. The third act, additionally, is taut and absorbing, and took definite cues from the air-duct sequence from the original Alien.
Keep in mind, though, that while this isn’t exactly a bloodbath, it does have a few somewhat grisly scenes of cow insides, and some upsetting sequences of cows having to be put down with a cattle gun, so if that sort of thing bothers you, you might want to give this one a pass.
As of this writing in April of 2023, Isolation is streaming on Shudder (at least in the United States), and it’s well worth your time if you like ecological or infection-type horror, and especially if you like Irish horror set in rural environs.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.