Wide open fields. Tall stalks of corn. A family car going faster than it should. Horror movie fans know this is going to end badly for the poor saps they’re watching. Sure enough, the inevitable crash and subsequent anguish in the hospital give way to a funeral scene. But why is the World Trade Center in the background?
It may take a while to figure out the reasons for The Twin’s historical specificity. Smart phones wouldn’t make much of a difference to the plot, so why else set it pre-2001? Most of the story takes place in rural Finland, so it’s not like Islamic terror would be a factor. And then it hits—a reason so utterly mundane and obvious that it seems ridiculous. This is a movie about grieving for a twin. And those were the Twin Towers. It’s establishing a pattern of seeing dead twins! Yes, really.
That choice is symptomatic of a key problem with The Twin. Certain motifs throughout seem really stupid and ill-conceived, until a revelation that sort-of explains the ham-handedness. Generally speaking, the best kinds of story surprises illuminate the material; the worst simply laugh at you for falling for red herrings. Much of what happens in The Twin bounces back and forth between those ends of the spectrum. To cite but one: an image of the demon Baphomet, seated on a throne and holding up his hand exactly as depicted in the statues erected by the Satanic Temple on public land to troll the religious right, just isn’t that scary nowadays.
Evangelical panic aside, the movie’s equating of pagans with satanists is sloppy and outdated—just ask members of either group in real life. They’re easy enough to find—and these days they’re more likely to have social media pages than secret goat sacrifices. Also, when a movie wants to make you scared of circles, it’s facing an uphill climb.
Horror filmdom is replete with families who retreat to scary rural locations after a tragedy. Rachel (Teresa Palmer, Warm Bodies) and husband Anthony (Steven Cree, Outlander’s Ian Murray) go all the way from New York City to Finland, not only with their surviving son Elliot (Tristan Ruggieri) in tow, but also a terrifying, Joker-like framed portrait of Elliot’s dead twin Nathan. Anthony, it seems, has Finnish heritage and some success as a writer. (In fact, it’s director Taneli Mustonen who’s from Finland, with some success there as a filmmaker). But the whole thing helps give the film a bit of a Midsommar vibe, which seems intentional; echoes of that title and Ari Aster’s other horror hit Hereditary permeate the story.
As Anthony starts acting like the absolute stereotype of a grieving writer, isolating himself and drinking whiskey, Elliot starts playing with an invisible Nathan, and then insisting that he is him.This leads to a few creepy nightmares and jump scares for Rachel, but on the whole, their big empty house is never quite as scary as it ought to be. A pitch-black corridor in Elliot’s room that seems to lead nowhere feels like a Chekovian gun of sorts, but its narrative function turns out to be the same as its literal one: leading nowhere.
One of the challenges with The Twin is that it’s hard to understand how this family is affected by tragedy if we never saw how they behaved prior to that. When Elliot suddenly claims to be his dead twin, how do we know the kid is acting out of character, or how his mannerisms have changed? There’s a reason the movie withholds key information like this, and it’s something of a spoiler, but it’s related to the fundamental problem that the story depends more on fakeouts than genuine character-based scares. And on the story’s own terms, a creepier sound design might go a long way to making the setting truly freaky.
Longtime British TV stalwart Barbara Marten adds some much needed personality as Helen, the random English woman in this Finn village. She’s either batshit insane, or talks to the dead, or some combination of both. The plot ultimately lets her down, but Marten’s wide-eyed intense commitment never wavers, and helps to give certain scares more impact than they’d otherwise have. If The Twin had made her the major threat, it might have given viewers some jump-scare nightmares for real.