First-time feature-director Andrew Desmond brings such confident panache to the supernatural thriller “The Sonata” that it almost doesn’t matter how derivative the plot is. Coscripted by Desmond and Arthur Morin, “The Sonata” drops a classic Gothic horror backdrop behind a hoary genre premise: the discovery of a piece of art that drives its audience insane. But the filmmakers add a few good wrinkles and generally approach the material in the right spirit.
The story begins with a legendarily reclusive musical genius named Richard Marlowe (Rutger Hauer) finishing his magnum opus and then setting himself on fire. His estranged daughter, Rose Fisher (Freya Tingley), a talented but troubled violinist, inherits his lavish French mansion and the rights to all of his music … including the composition that destroyed him.
Simon Abkarian plays Rose’s manager and mentor Charles Vernais, who had no idea that his most promising client was the daughter of a man who’d been on the verge of revolutionizing classical music, before he went off the grid. Sensing a big payday, Charles follows Rose to France and urges her — against her intuition — to find out more about what her father was working on before he died, at the risk of her own career.
Desmond tells this tale briskly and cleanly, relying a lot on the stylistic tics of the old Hammer Film Productions — in particular all the low-angle shots, framing elegantly dressed characters and ornate architecture against ominously gray skies. The film takes the form of a spooky mystery, as Rose talks to the skittish locals about her dad and begins to fear his art was bound up with something demonic.
“The Sonata” is well-made but not exceptional. It could use fewer long, expository conversations and more heart-stopping horror set-pieces. The actors have a lot of verve, but because their characters are so straightforward — bordering on archetypal — their situation is hard to connect to on an emotional level.
Still, the film’s simplicity does prove to be a virtue down the stretch, as it creeps toward the inevitable moment when Rose picks up her instrument and plays Marlowe’s last notes. As the music and the mayhem intensify, the movie raises unsettling questions about the lengths some creators will go to for their art — and about the legacy those monstrous maestros leave.
Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes
Playing: Starts Jan. 10, Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica