Jerren Lauder’s The Inhabitant is part slasher part whodunnit and delivers on atmosphere, performance and suspense, but falters in its themes.
The phenomenon that is true crime means that many might be familiar with the story of Lizzie Borden, a young woman accused – and acquitted – of murdering her father and stepmother with an axe in Fall River, Massachusetts in 1892. Jerren Lauder’s The Inhabitant is built on the theories surrounding Lizzie’s story, the paranormal rumours and historical claims of a ‘curse’ on Borden descendants. It’s part slasher and part whodunnit, eerie and atmospheric, and anchored by a really emotive central performance, even if it does fumble a little in its thematical exploration.
Tara (Odessa A’zion) is a fairly average teenager. She plays field hockey, makes clothes to sell online, worries about her boyfriend leaving for college, and has terrifying visions of murdering her family with an axe. As Tara starts to dig into her familial lineage and their creepy connection to the infamous Lizzie Borden, she starts to wonder whether there really is something more sinister lurking inside her.
The Inhabitant opens in the woods, in the dark, where a shadowy figure in period clothing is sharpening an axe. Yes, it’s a little on the nose, but it does suitably set up the creeping sense of unease that lingers throughout the majority of Lauder’s film. It holds back on its secrets, utilising the element of suspense until the final reveal to ensure that the audience is suspicious of literally everyone as the brutally axed bodies start piling up. Lauder and cinematographer Bian Sowell really deftly build tension, intrigue and paranoia, even if Sanford Parker’s music sometimes gives the game away in a manner not too dissimilar to cliché horror.
There is unease, scares and gruesome deaths galore here. Kevin Bachar’s script leans in to the ‘fun’ parts of slasher horror and whodunnit mysteries, giving the film its pace, intrigue and efficient spookiness. Tara is a captivating protagonist, whose fear, fragility and potentially fractured psyche are really effectively portrayed by A’zion. Her emotional state bolsters the way the film cleverly colours everyone around her. The whispered conversations of her parents, Leslie Bibb and Dermot Mulroney, and the loaded looks from her best friend Suzy (Lizze Broadway) paint a particular picture for a troubled teenager, and A’zion is desperately trying to figure out the truth of what she sees, hears and feels.
But this is where the film falters. It’s attempting to draw on themes of mental illness and generational trauma, but doesn’t particularly explore either of them in any sufficient depth. It quite ham-fistedly uses schizophrenia as a plot device, and skips over any meaningful discussions between Tara and her mother, father or even her therapist that would have bolstered the films thematical elements. Instead the film’s themes feel a little rushed and crow-barred in to a story that would have worked just as well – if not better – had it stuck to the realms of demons and ghosts, without trying to psychoanalyse or diagnose its axe-wielding protagonist.
The Inhabitant works well enough as a ghost story and a murder mystery, but falters when it comes to the way in which it explores – or, perhaps more accurately, glances over – its themes. Lauder’s film is atmospheric, engaging and entertaining, even if it is frustrating at times. Its ending feeds into that complaint entirely, but for the most part the film functions well as a spooky story. It doesn’t particularly offer anything new to the intrigue around Lizzie Borden’s enduring infamy, but does emphasise the enduring power of salacious true crime.
The Inhabitant will be released on Digital Download in the UK & Ireland from 14th August, 2023. The film is out now on digital and on demand in the US: watch The Inhabitant!