The new horror/thriller FOUR HANDS (“Die Vierhandige” in German) from writer/director Oliver Kienle made its Midwestern debut at the Chicago Film Festival this weekend and it’s an amazing addition to their “After Dark” series this year. The film is tense, riveting, and does what the best horror always does - it puts the emphasis on dread rather than blood. In fact, this film will have you on the edge of your seat from the first moments of the film until the final credits start to roll. It’s truly one of the most assured works in the genre, and may remind you of the best of David Fincher, as well as acclaimed thrillers like Ingmar Bergman’s PERSONA (1966) and Juan Jose Campanella’s THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES (2009). Remenber the name Oliver Kienle, because he is likely going to be the next big deal.
How assured is Kienle’s work here? Quite simply, there is not a wasted moment, line, gesture or expression in his film, with each moment connecting to the horrors at hand. Actually, make that four hands as it all connects to the strange and twisted bond between the two sister protagonists here. When they were younger they were forced to watch their mother killed by a home intruder, and 20 years after the fact, it still haunts their every waking moment, their relationship with each other, and their individual senses of identity.
The movie starts with a ginormous and imposing 19th century house shown alone on a hill with an industrial plant right next door exuding smoke from its imposing chimney stacks. The sound of the clanking machinery serves almost as a metronome for two little girls playing a piano duet together inside the house's parlor. They are Jessica and Sophie, and their four-handed duet not only captures their sisterly bond but it shows an inherent tension between the two as well. Not long after, their lives are irreparably changed forever when their mother is attacked in the same room as the girls scrabble to hide and end up being witnesses to her stabbing murder mere seconds later.
The killer is a man who only intended to rob the place with his girlfriend, but they didn't expect to find anyone at home. They try to eliminate the witnesses to their botched burglary but didn't realize that the two young girls were hiding behind the sofa. Only the older Jessica sees the horrible killing as she covers her sister Sophie’s eyes and ears to shield her from the horror. She even whispers to her that it'll be alright and that she'll always protect her, but this being a horror movie and all, that will soon turn out to be a false promise.
The murderers are caught, thrown in jail, and the movie moves forward 20 years hence with the adult sisters still together, still living in that huge house, and the industrial plant still chugging away next door. The murderers get parole too, and their release sends the girls into a panic. What will they do? How can they deal with the two ex-cons living in the same town? As the sisters argue about whether or not to move or seek revenge, the timid, brown-haired Sophie (Frida-Lovisa Hamann) rejects talks of murderous schemes from the intense, raven-haired Jessica (Friederike Becht).
The two fight, the way only close siblings can, and their hasty battle ends up getting them run over by an errant car in a parking garage. Jessica doesn't recover from her wounds and her sister's death spirals Sophie into a deep despair. Now she's lost a third family member to the drama of the home intruders, and it starts to make the budding concert pianist crack. She no longer wants to play, and she feels horrendous survivor's guilt. Now, she not only has to deal with the parolees but also her unresolved relationship with her deceased sis.
Whenever a film's story has a twin or close sibling die in the storyline, the remaining one invariably has a difficult time with self awareness and identity. This film is no exception as Sophie starts to feel like she must honor her sister’s vow to protect her by taking on the characteristics of Jessica. And sure enough, it isn't long before Sophie starts acting just like her sister. At least she's aware that she is suffering from dissociative identity disorder, but quicker than you can say "Jekyll & Hyde", Sophie lapses into behavior just like that of her sister, and worse yet, she blacks out during those times and cannot remember what happened. As she tries to identify her actions while 'being Jessica' Sophie will not only run in with the law, but she will discover bruises and wounds that come with no explanation.
The way Kienle has Sophie turn into Jessica is not done in some cornball special effect way that we're used to seeing with Frederich March or even Jerry Lewis. Rather, Kienle just changes actresses mid-scene to convey that one or the other sister is now dominating. It’s a fantastic trope, clever each time it’s used, and it helps us understand just who is who. Of course, the shifting identities become more and more difficult to track, and to share any additional spoilers would ruin the fun. Suffice it to say, the way the girls flip back and forth is both clever and exceedingly creepy.
|Filmmaker Oliver Kienle|
Kienle is not only an exceptionally clever screenwriter, but he’s an excellent director of his cast too, particularly his two lead actresses. Both Hamann and Becht are superb in very physically demanding and complex roles. Christoph Letkowski is great too in his supporting role as a hospital worker who befriends Sophie during her journey. (One can imagine the American remake already - I can see Jennifer Lawrence, Shailene Woodley and Chris Pine in the parts.)
Kienle also knows how to add surprises to the tried and true tropes of horror. He ends scenes much quicker than you’d expect, and that adds instant tension to the start of the next scene. Kienle uses both Jessica’s voice and her image to screw with Sophie’s sense of self, and he creates menacing sound design out of the constant rhythm of the local factory noise. They seem to literally propel Sophie’s madness down that road even faster. And as the truth of what’s going on starts to become illuminated, Kienle wittily increases the shadows in Yoshi Heimrath’s cinematography.
Indeed, it says a lot about the brilliance of a psychological horror movie when the revenge angle becomes the clear B story to the A story’s superior thrills and chills. Kienle masterfully brings both of the two stories together seamlessly for his climax as well, and he keeps some of his best surprises for the final denouement. This is one of the year's best horror movies and might even figure into the best foreign language film balloting by critics groups in the remaining months of this year.
It's run is now done at the Chicago International Film Festival, but be sure to look for this superior horror film when it arrives at an arthouse near you for its regular run or makes its way onto VOD. Oh, and don’t be surprised if FOUR HANDS is voted one of the best of the Chicago fest at the end of next week. This one is a winner, ahem, hands down.