During its first 10 minutes, “Elizabeth Harvest” is so tediously mannered, and lead player Abbey Lee’s performance is so listlessly affected, that an urge to bail is well-nigh irresistible. But then writer-director Sebastian Gutierrez pulls the rug and the floorboards right out from under you, and his impudently oddball gothic sci-fi melodrama lurches into a different groove. The disorienting impact of this early shock, coupled with the zig-zaggy progression of the time-tripping narrative, goes a long way toward distracting from a fairly conventional premise that ultimately asserts itself above all the flash and filigree. Indeed, you could describe the entire movie as an elaborate con job — and intend that appraisal as a compliment.
With the invaluable assistance of cinematographer Cale Finot, who precisely hits the sweet spot between futuristic sterility and rococo stylization, Gutierrez gives us a contemporary reimagining of the “Bluebeard” mythos set in the isolated mountain estate of a zillionaire research scientist.
Henry (Ciaran Hinds) returns to his 21st-century equivalent of a magic castle with Elizabeth (Lee), his much younger and very beautiful wife, after what appears to have been a whirlwind courtship and wedding. At first, Elizabeth behaves as one intoxicated by a heady rush of passion, sudden wealth and endless possibilities for happily-ever-aftering. But while she is overwhelmed by the luxury showered upon her by Henry, she can’t help feeling a tad awkward whenever she’s around the two-member house staff: Oliver (Matthew Beard), a blind twentysomething with a knack for flower arrangements, and Claire (Carla Gugino), a deferential but ominous woman who suggests a more attractive and polite version of Mrs. Danvers from Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” (just one of the several classic films Gutierrez quotes throughout the film).
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Before he departs for what he promises will be a brief business trip, Henry tells his new bride she has free run of the immense house — with the sole proviso being that she can never enter a locked room where, presumably, he conducts his research. Naturally, she slips into the room and, just as naturally, very bad things start to happen.
What sort of things? Well, there’s the rub: It’s difficult to give even the most vaguely detailed, spoiler-averse description of what occurs after the opening scenes of “Elizabeth Harvest” without spilling beans and revealing twists.
The story has something to do with cloning experiments, something else to do misplaced loyalties, and a few more things to do with frayed family ties, romantic obsession, an inconveniently inquisitive and possibly corrupt cop (Dylan Baker) and a very conveniently detail-stuffed journal that proves extremely helpful to at least one of the people who read it. Secrets are revealed and motivations are unveiled incrementally as flashbacks alternate with the present. And while not all of the surprises are very surprising, Gutierrez and his cast do a respectable job of keeping us guessing long after we can tell where they are going.
As the movie progresses, Lee’s performance greatly improves as she illuminates different aspects of Elizabeth, and Hinds effectively imbues the mad scientist archetype with unappeasable sorrow and tragic self-awareness. In her earlier collaborations with Gutierrez — most notably, 2011’s free-wheelingly Altmanesque “Girl Walks Into a Bar” (one of the first commercial features released directly to YouTube) and the 2009 porn-spoofing roundelay “Women in Trouble” — Gugino cut loose as a smart and sexy live wire. Here, however, she is every bit as arresting as a substantially more repressed character who exposes her sensual side in a very different way. But it would be unfair to say more than that about her portrayal of Claire, or about “Elizabeth Harvest” itself.