‘Presence’ Review – Psychological Horror Film Lost at Sea

Coming from Dark creators Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar, 1899 is a suitably spooky and mysterious period thriller about a missing (possibly haunted) ship. The eight-episode Netflix series is a combination of the first season of Terror and ghost ship with a touch of Downton Abbey.

The series opens with a nightmare as Maura Franklin (Emilie Beechum), an English doctor, wakes up from a dream where she is threatened by a mysterious man shrouded in shadows. Immediately after leaving her room, it’s clear she’s already on a ship, crossing the ocean to New York like her brother Henry. He and more than a thousand other people have been missing for four months since Something arrived at the Prometheus, a sister ship to the one Maura is on. Her only clue to what happened is a letter to Henry asking him to come to New York as soon as possible.

There is a strange symbol embossed in the wax sealing the letter: an inverted triangle with a line running through the bottom (almost the reverse of how icebergs in water are often drawn). This symbol appears regularly throughout the series: on the floor under a bed, on one character’s necklace, and as a tattoo on another’s neck. It’s a striking recurring visual, though early in the series its purpose or meaning is unclear.

fans of Dark will probably discover the secrets and mysteries of 1899 a little conventional. Friese and bo Odar’s previous Netflix series was an incredibly convoluted and thought-provoking serial killer story. 1899 still contains many unanswered questions, but, compared to Dark, its approach to storytelling should be much easier to follow for casual audiences.

However, there’s still plenty of atmosphere, and the production design is top-notch. Except for some dodgy special effects work when the figures stand on deck, the period costumes are immaculate, and the art department has outdone itself with the expensive, textured look of the ship’s interior. There’s even a light palette shift in the rich, vibrant wood of the upper-class levels versus the dark grays of the lower decks where poor families are packed like sardines.

The distinction between classes is brought into even sharper relief in the scenes with Olek (Maciej Musiallisten)), an often shirtless member of the engine crew whose job it is to fuel the giant engines with coal. His story intersects with that of Jérome (Yann Gael), a black stowaway posing as a crew member whom Olek discovers and befriends just as the central mystery emerges: the coordinates of the missing ship begin to transmit from an unexpected location.

What happened aboard the Prometheus is the main question of the series, but like all good mysteries, the answer is far from simple. To complicate matters further, nearly everyone aboard Maura’s ship has a reason for fleeing Europe, and the intertwined stories of what the characters are fleeing from are almost as compelling as the ghost ship. Throw in a dumb boy hiding in a closet (Fflyn Edwards) and a wet stranger (Aneurine Barnard) who sneaks aboard when no one is looking and it’s clear that weird things are brewing very clearly.

Curiously, the diversity of stories aboard the ship means that 1899 highlights multiple languages. Both ships were once owned by a German company and then sold to the British with half the German employees retained. This means that the two main characters are a British female doctor and the German captain Eyk Larsen (Andreas Pietschmann). There is also a woman posing as a Japanese noblewoman (Isabelle Wei) who secretly practices the language in his room with his authoritarian master.

A minor element that detracts from the enjoyment of the series is how the score is sometimes used. In one scene, a locked predatory homosexual (Michel Bernardeau) locates his object of affection – a lower-class man (The rainit is Lucas Lynggaard Tonnesen) – in a bathroom to force a cigarette case into his pocket. The score that accompanies this scene would not be out of place in a horror movie; while Bernardeau’s character is clearly acting sleazy, the use of the score gives the impression that Michael Myers is stalking Laurie Strode.

The same musical tactic is used when Jérome sneaks into the cabin of French bride Clémence (Mathilde Olivier) to leave an object on her husband’s desk. Considering that Jerome is one of the only non-white characters in the series, it’s uncomfortable and unusual that the 1899 The creative team uses the score to suggest that marginalized POCs and queer characters are threatening or terrifying characters.

Minor demerits aside, 1899 is a polished and compelling period mystery. There’s a lot of intrigue in the events of the vanishing ship, as well as the diversity of characters whose futures are intertwined in its reappearance. There’s nothing else like 1899 on TV right now.

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