Canada. 80 minutes. Directed by Rodrigo Gudiño, 2012. Starring Aaron Poole, Vanessa Redgrave, Julian Richings, Charlotte Sullivan, Mitch Markowitz.

Antiques dealer Leon Leigh has become estranged from his eccentric and devout mother Rosalind; yet her will specifies him as sole inheritor of her estate. After her death, he comes to her home to put her affairs in order. As he does so, memories of his unhappy childhood–the death of his father, the emotional abuse by his mother, and the strange cult his parents belonged to–come flooding back, and he has numerous strange experiences during his stay. How did Rosalind Leigh die, and was the cult involved? What, exactly, is the strange animal who prowls the grounds? And does the cult truly possess the secret of communion with the dead?

The Last Will and Testament is the début feature from Rue Morgue founder Rodrigo Gudiño, and it’s a doozy. It’s rare to see a first effort this audacious, visionary and unique. Clive Barker’s assertion that “no precedent” exists for a film like Rosalind Leigh is hyperbole, but not by much.

For one thing, there’s the cast. The only actor we spend more than a nominal amount of on-screen time with is Aaron Poole, who plays the lead role of Leon Leigh. There are a couple of other actors with brief, on-screen speaking roles: Vanessa Redgrave’s Rosalind is only seen in vague flashes; Julian Richings appears in a video clip as the cult’s creepy founding twin brothers; Steven McIntyre shouts fire and brimstone on a VHS recording of a church service.

But in terms of who we actually see, it’s up to Poole to carry the vast bulk of the film. This makes his role the most crucial casting decision, because he has to fit the role like a glove…which he does.

That doesn’t mean that there’s not a gaggle of strong performances here; Rosalind Leigh is very rare among live-action films for having more significant voice-over roles than on-screen ones. Rosalind is to the unseen roles what Leon is to the roles that actually appear, and her understated, slightly mournful narration helps drive the film. And yet, it’s more crucial than most film narration, as it tells a subtly different story than the visuals do. In order to get the full measure of what’s going on here, you have to figure out how to fit the narration and the visuals together.

Other remarkable vocal performances come from Charlotte Sullivan, as Leon’s significant other Anna (I’m not sure whether they’re meant to be married or dating), and Mitch Markowitz as the narrator of a book-on-tape on the subject of communion with the dead. Indeed, the latter performance is one of the most striking and memorable voice-overs in recent memory, calling to mind Lonnie Farmer’s performance as the psychiatrist in Session 9.

The visuals are as strong as the performances. Rosalind Leigh is a remarkable aesthetic effort for a feature début (although Gudiño has directed several short films as well), with breathtakingly beautiful cinematography and design work. (This film actually manages to make angel statues scary in a way that Doctor Who can’t quite manage!) The pacing is a bit of a slow burn, but it fits the story well, and the momentum never flags between set-pieces.

The last singular aspect of Rosalind Leigh is its narrative. By now horror fans are used to both “puzzle movies” where they’re expected to piece what’s going on along with the characters (see: Cube), movies whose natures change  their plot twists (see: Martyrs), and films that either answer seemingly central questions ambiguously or not at all (see: The Blair Witch Project). Rosalind Leigh contains elements of all three, and indeed, is often so subtle that you don’t even realize you’re looking at a plot twist or a crucial reveal until much, much later.

The downside to all of this is that much of the experience consists of things whose significance are far from readily apparent. (What significance does the animal hold, for example? And how is it possible for Rosalind to have died in the way we’re led to believe?) Seemingly insignificant or random details seem to take on grand importance (why doesn’t Gudiño show the face of the man who knocks at the door?).

Even minor production details tantalize: many of the less prominent voice-over roles are performed by Aaron Poole, Julian Richings and Charlotte Sullivan. This mightn’t have been done for budget reasons–certainly Gudiño could have afforded a couple more voice artists with his $1.8 million (Canadian) budget? So was it for convenience…or are we supposed to infer that there’s a deeper connection between Leigh’s agent, the aforementioned visitor, and the cult’s founders (all performed by Richings)?

It’s all very intriguing, to be sure, but one wishes that Gudiño had put a bit more work into assuring the audience that there’s a real explanation behind all the obscurities. More than once, I feared that Rosalind Leigh might fall prey to the worst indulgences of Argento’s back-catalog, in which elements are included because they make pretty visual events, not because they connect with the story. As it is, I commend Gudiño for placing so much trust in his audience’s intelligence, but that same audience has to put a lot of faith in the filmmaker that he knows what he’s doing. The film will doubtlessly benefit from rewatching–but how many in the audience bother is an entirely different question.

The bottom line is that those trusting and patient enough will find The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh to be an enchanting, enigmatic, obsession-inducing gem, and one certainly hopes that its reputation grows in future. Even if it doesn’t, it’s still different enough from the ruck and run of modern horror movies to justify giving it a chance.

THE LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT OF ROSALIND LEIGH poster.

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