Writer-director William McGregor’s debut feature film, “Gwen,” has the eerie quiet and grim portent of a supernatural horror story, but it’s a genre picture more in form than content. The movie has more in common with the historical dramas that Ingmar Bergman made in the 1960s, where elliptical narratives and spiritual despair rendered everything kind of spooky.
Eleanor Worthington-Cox plays the title character: a mid-19th century Welsh farmer’s daughter. With her father away — perhaps forever — and her mother increasingly erratic, it’s left to Gwen to investigate what natural or unnatural force has been destroying the crops in the region and killing their neighbors.
McGregor has a good command of horror’s visual and sonic cues. He frequently shatters the movie’s persistent silence with terrifying jolts while teasing out the mystery of what’s been happening around Gwen’s family. Where did her dad go? Why do so many people in the village eye them suspiciously?
The tension in “Gwen,” which becomes more effective as the story plays out, is ultimately tied to down-to-earth concerns. In a way, this is a movie about what happens when a young person’s faith gets shaken, as the heroine begins to doubt her mom has what it takes to lead her out of hard times.
It’s also a movie about social change and the possibility that what Gwen’s family is facing isn’t a disease or a demon but rather the inevitable end of agrarian life. The real monster here could be something scarier than ghosts — the Industrial Revolution, devouring all.
Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes
Playing: Starts Aug. 16, Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica; also on VOD