01st Mar2019

Glasgow Frightfest 2019: ‘Level 16’ Review

by Phil Wheat

Stars: Katie Douglas, Celina Martin, Sara Canning, Peter Outerbridge, Amalia Williamson, Kate Vickery, Joelle Farrow, Josette Halpert, Shanice Johnson, Yasmin Lau, Kiana Madeira | Written and Directed by Danishka Esterhazy


Sixteen-year-old Vivien feels trapped in The Vestalis Academy, a prison-like boarding school, keeping to herself and sticking her neck out for no one while being indoctrinated in the feminine virtues of cleanliness, obedience and sweetness. Until she is reunited with Sophia – the former friend who betrayed her – who has stopped taking her prescribed medication and now has so many questions about their clearly run down institution. Together the girls embark on a dangerous search to uncover the horrifying truth behind their submissive incarceration.

A dystopian sci-fi thriller inspired by Logan’s Run and its concept of a hero who uncovered the truth about society by questioning everything he had been taught by the system; and Jane Eyre, in particular the early part of the novel that takes place in the Lowood Institution for orphan girls, Level 16 could easily be compared to the likes of The Handmaid’s Tale (some have said this could almost be a sister-piece to that novel/TV show) but is much more than that – its an exploration about womens place in society, released at a time when female empowerment has never been more pertinent.

Level 16 is also a remarkable story of not only female empowerment but also of friendship. How, despite all the competitive aspects of The Vestalis Academy, its working together that will see you through, not fighting amongst yourselves. It’s also a timely tale about what could happen in a society where the rich can exploit a vulnerable underclass. In an era where the top 1% own half of all the world’s wealth, Danishka Esterhazy’s film is a bold, cautionary tale about what can happen when human life is undervalued. It also says a lot about the pursuit of money and luxury, in this case the girls wanting to be chosen by their new “families”, and how putting that above all else (so on-point given the rise of the social media influencer and the likes of the Kardashians) is NOT the best way to live – if its living at all.

Apparently writer/director Danishka Esterhazy was “inspired” (if thats the right word) by educational manuals for young women from the Victorian period up to the 1960s; manuals which demonstrated a disregard for female intelligence and independence – ideals which, even today, are still enforced by society, often the norm rather than an anomaly. Which should not be the case in a modern society like ours (though can we really call ourselves a “modern” society in such divisive times?)

Very reminiscent of 2011’s Sucker Punch, Level 16 takes that similar story premise and presents it from the female perspective. Gone are the skimpy outfits, the long drawn out male gaze of the camera, the male-orientated fantasy wish-fulfillment and in comes a taught, well-told story that puts women front and centre (in particular the stunning performance of Katie Douglas as Vivien) of what is, ultimately, a chilling science fiction tale which carries on the classic genre traditions of The Stepford Wives and John Carpenter’s They Live, focusing on not just the obedience of the female characters within but also the obedience of the [poor, unwashed] masses as a whole – but from a refreshing and more importantly, female, point of view.

**** 4/5

Level 16 screened at the Glasgow Film Theatre on Friday 1st March, as part of Arrow Video FrightFest Glasgow 2019. The film is also in US cinemas and on VOD today from Dark Sky Films. The film will available on Digital HD in the UK on May 27 courtesy of Signature Entertainment


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