In Sigmund Freud's seminal 1919 essay on the uncanny - a text on which modern horror films and novels have essentially been sculpted - he identified, among other things, the idea of a person's double, or doppelganger, as one of the creepiest elements of psychology.
This idea has been used countless times since to convey a sense of otherworldliness and impending doom, perhaps most successfully in films like Russian sci-fi epic Solaris and Roger Moore's pre-Bond The Man Who Haunted Himself.
The Broken, British director Sean Ellis' sophomore effort after the critically-panned Cashback, owes a great debt to Moore's film. Both involve spectacular car crashes letting bizarre and terrifying doppelgangers into their lives, and central characters dealing with there apparently being two of themselves in any situation. But while Basil Dearden's 1971 flick always seems to fall just this side of playful, Ellis' modern retooling is a portentous, po-faced and pretentious work of style over substance.
Things begin promisingly enough. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles' Lena Headly plays Gina, a London-based neuroscientist who spots her doppelganger driving her car in a busy street. She follows to investigate, but - crucially to the plot - we next see her driving away, where she is involved in a spectacularly-rendered car accident. Waking from a coma, she cannot remember the events - but after a series of bizarre events at home becomes convinced that her boyfriend and family are not who they pretend to be. As more and more of her family seem to become changed in some way, she must face a terrible memory resurfacing from before the crash.
It is unfair to judge a writer-director too much on their past films - and The Broken is certainly a step up from Ellis' last film. Cashback - adapted from his Oscar-nominated short of the same name - felt exactly like a supremely well-shot short film stretched thinly over 100 minutes. The Broken has more ideas going for it, but while some are well thought-through, others are at best baffling, and at worst downright incomprehensible. The film's set up is as a promisingly enigmatic psychological horror - is she going mad, or are her family really being replaced by doubles? Unfortunately the plot reveal, sprung around two thirds of the way through, is so improbable, such a ludicrous deus-ex-machina, that the film loses credibility immediately.
It is a shame, as Ellis shows a prodigious talent as a cinematic photographer. Working with, one would assume, a limited budget, he has created a sumptuous-looking horror in modern London (Ellis is a fashion photographer by trade), which puts many of its American counterparts to shame. He also shows a knack for creating tension and scares even in the most mundane situations (a leaking tap in an attic is well exploited), but too often they feel second hand, as if the script and story was of secondary consideration during the making of the film.
The cast acquit themselves well enough, although Headly's continuing impassiveness in the face of danger seems at odds with the situation - that is, until the end. Six Feet Under's Richard Jenkins adds a little transatlantic glamour to the role of Gina's father, while the rest of the small, mostly unknown, cast do 'brooding’ 'sulking’ and 'possessed by a very slow moving beastie’ as well as can be expected.
The Broken could - and should - have been an interesting entry into a British horror canon enjoying something of a renaissance after high profile shockers like Eden Lake and 28 Days/Weeks Later. Unfortunately, despite the director’s best intentions, it is eventually a huge disappointment for a film that initially offers much.