The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh makes a mistake that I’ve seen very few horror films make. It spends so much time on plot and character development that its squanders every opportunity to function as a horror film. It is an ambitious failure, but worth watching.
I suppose its good that horror films have gotten past the point they were ten years ago, where grisly things happened to people for the flimsiest of reasons, but this film takes it to the other extreme which is a shame, because there is a lot here that could have been great.
I suppose the horror here is intended to be existential, the fear of loneliness and the futility of misguided faith, as opposed to the ghost or the ghoul. But those are the only scenes that work in this film. Great horror films tend to have a central conceit, that something really bad happens to someone that you care about that really doesn’t deserve it. Tweak any part of that formula, and it doesn’t work as well. The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh errs in that it pits an absentee (and unusually stubborn) son against a fanatical mother. There is no one to care about.
The plot is straightforward. Leon (Aaron Poole) was raised by his mother Rosalind Leigh (a mostly unseen Vanessa Redgrave) who fervently participates in a cult that worships angels. His father dies in a mysterious suicide, (something the film references, builds, but then never resolves!) that the creepy founders of the cult are cleared of. Between this and his mother’s heavy handed attempts to make him believe, he takes on a secular way of thinking, leaves and never comes back, not even for her funeral.
But she leaves him the house. And he’s antiques collector, so it is worth it for him to come back. The house itself is a masterpiece of set/art decoration. Whereas most films of this type have a gothic mansion, The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh takes place in a home with country, rustic flourishes, and bursts of primitive art. It is effectively unnerving. In a brilliant touch, she spent her life quilting esoteric sayings that she has posted around the house, giving everything an ominous touch.
Once in the house, he begins to get the feeling that his mother has one last message for him, that she still wants him to believe. And if he doesn’t believe he will lose the angel’s protection, which would be a problem.
At night, there is something horrible in the garden, something he can’t quite see and it’s getting closer.
Of course, all of this is squandered. The idea of our faith making things happen and our doubt consuming us could have worked, but the logic doesn’t hold up, and the pace of the film is for the most part glacial. There are a couple of tense scenes, making the whole thing more painful, because you see how it could have worked, had they not tried to be so clever. And the end is a huge letdown. The problem with a slow build is that you have to give your audience something worth it at the end, and writer/director Rodrigo Gudino doesn’t do that.
But for a first film, there is a great deal more right about The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh than wrong. It just decided to ask the big questions rather than answer the little ones.