There’s something enigmatic surrounding Claire Oakley‘s feature-length debut Make Up. Its synopsis suggests horror… or psychological thriller… or coming-of-age drama. And even Oakley’s introduction at the Glasgow Film Theatre is vague, as she decides the audience should simply watch without any preamble creating false expectations. And this is what serves the film best – a blank slate and an open mind.
In it, eighteen-year-old Ruth moves to a seaside caravan park to live with and work alongside new boyfriend Tom. Supporting character Shirley (played perfectly by Lisa Palfrey) provides comic buffering and we casually observe Ruth growing accustomed to her new surroundings. However, it becomes apparent that something is amiss. Strange shrieks at night keep Ruth awake and the odd behaviour of some of the campsite residents preoccupies her. An atmosphere of unease creeps in and soon we settle on a fresh mystery – unfamiliar hairs in Tom’s clothes and lipstick marks on a mirror. Ruth develops a fixation with finding the culprit and her exploration takes her to new territories. Unsettling jump-cuts and inexplicable flashbacks distort what the audience thought was real and the film becomes as much a murky investigation of Ruth’s psyche as of her physical surroundings.
The eerie mood intensifies and Oakley cleverly plays with horror tropes to set us on edge. Squeamish closeups of injuries, unexpected lighting tricks and dreamlike images of wigs, hands and silhouettes all work effectively. The jump-scare is used sparingly and precisely and turns the tension up another notch at pivotal moments. However, there is more than adrenaline-teasing going on here. As the mystery unfolds, we notice the use of symbolism – hair, water, and plastic coverings – that points to something more significant: that what Ruth is searching for is perhaps hidden within, rather than behind any sand dune or changing room door. And so we realise the film is a character study of a young woman dealing with deeply buried issues as well as an exploration of sexuality, gender, and toxic masculinity.
Make Up is impressive work, particularly as a directorial debut (Oakley also wrote the script). It plays with genre, cleverly crafts an ominous and suspenseful atmosphere, provides some hypnotic visuals, and invites our engagement, guesswork, and reflection throughout. In time, the film should easily sit well amongst alt-horror favourites and creepy cult classics.