28th Aug2020

Fantasia 2020: ‘The Oak Room’ Review

by Phil Wheat

Stars: RJ Mitte, Peter Outerbridge, Ari Millen, Nicholas Campbell, Martin Roach, David Ferry, Amos Crawley, Avery Esteves, Coal Campbell | Written by Peter Genoway | Directed by Cody Calahan

I was a huge (and I do mean huge) fan of Cody Calahan’s 2013 debut feature Antisocial and its 2015 follow-up, so I was super-excited to see The Oak Room, the latest directorial effort from Calahan and the Canadian genre filmmaking outfit Black Fawn Films – a company who, in my opinion, have produced some of the best genre films in recent years, giving the much more well-known Blumhouse Productions a run fo their money when it comes to low-budget horror filmmaking; and The Oak Room is their best yet.

On a snowy night in a small Canadian town, Paul (Peter Outerbridge) has just closed up his bar when a young man named Steve (RJ Mitte) walks in the door – carrying a lot of baggage. The shared history between the two results in significant tension before Steve says he’s got a hell of a story to tell. It’s about another bar, The Oak Room, another snowy night, and another bartender visited after hours, this time by a stranger. There’s a story within that story as well… and as each mini-narrative unfolds, it brings Paul and Steve closer to a truth that will have severe and permanent consequences…

So a man walks into a bar… Sounds like the start of a joke right? In this case it’s anything but.

With its origins in a play, also written by writer Peter Genoway, The Oak Room is a fascinating character study come horror film. It’s also a masterclass in storytelling, both in the sense of how the film plays out AND in the way the characters within the film tell their stories – be it literally, in the case of RJ Mitte’s character Steve, or through performance.

Speaking of performance, The Oak Room is the type of film that demands solid performances. Performances that are not only believable but also ones that will hold you attention. Thank god then for both RJ Mitte and Peter Outerbridge. Outerbridge, the unsung “hero” of Canadian filmmaking, gives a powerhouse performance as bar owner Paul, whilst Mitte’s performance is one of subtlety and intrigue; and together they’re fascinating to watch.

The Oak Room is also the kind of film that demands you pay attention to every slightest thing, from the way in which things are said, the way people act, even the facial expressions they pull. Everything, and I do mean EVERYTHING, is key to understanding what is really going on in The Oak Room. You see, there’s some subtle (and not-so-subtle) hints that what we’re seeing and what we’re being told are NOT the truth, be it in the odd behaviour of the characters or the strange situation(s) we’re shown, nothing – it seems – can be trusted. Even the audience can’t be trusted to interpret what we’re seeing correctly. Especially considering we’re watching people tell stories and only parts of stories at that, some even relaying stories about stories – in a kind of “Chinese Whispers” way… Can anything then be taken at face value?

If the characters within it are deceitful so is the film itself, in the same way that murder-mysteries are of course! We’re not seeing the entire story, we’re not told the entire tale, we’re only seeing pieces. Hell, Outerbridge’s character Paul even talks about “goosing the truth”, in essence spicing up stories to make them more interesting. And The Oak Room is filled with stories, tales within tales; in an almost portmanteau way – with Mitte and Outerbridge’s characters the kind of captivating storytellers you’d find in the classic Hammer and Amicus anthologies.

As the films epic finale unfolds and The Oak Room‘s truth is told, it turns out this film has a twisted sting in its tale (sic), one that brings all the threads laid out in the proceeding stories to a satisfyingly grim conclusion. Yet one that, like the rest of the film, is still open to interpretation – and one that left a wry smile on this reviewers face!

***** 5/5

My favourite genre film of the year so far, The Oak Room screens as part of this years Fantasia Festival, which takes place Aug 20th – Sept 2nd 2020.


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