Paradise Hills is The Stepford Wives Meets Jupiter Ascending

All horror is, to some degree, social commentary. The trends of the genre give us a peek into what creators and their presumed audiences are preoccupied with, be it the paranoia thrillers of the Watergate era or the torture porn boom that rose during the Abu Ghraib atrocities. But conscious social horror is its own special kind of treat, the They Lives and 1970s Invasion of the Body Snatcherses all the better for how totally uninterested they are in any kind of subtlety. The recently released Paradise Hills fits firmly in that genre.

It’s immediately obvious that Alice Waddington, here making her feature directorial debut, comes from the world of design. The film’s plot is a semi-straightforward riff on The Stepford Wives. Rebellious rich girl Uma is shipped off to an island that molds young women into their parents’ ideals, with sinister rumblings underpinning the idyllic gardens and tea parties. Throw in some sly digs at the kind of New Age lip service that insists a few more yoga sessions will cure your depression, and you’ve got the idea. But aesthetically, Paradise Hills has more in common with the lavish design of Jupiter Ascending, and those gorgeous sets and costumes are as much a star as any of the leads.

It works much better than many style-over-substance films, emphasizing the script’s themes about grooming women for pleasing, ultimately subservient societal roles but not overpowering the rapport of its four main actresses. The first half of the film is a pleasure to simply absorb, taking in the sights and archetypal but effective performances.

But the film runs into trouble when it hits the third act. The nighttime and underground scenes are much more poorly lit than the rest of the film, at times outright obscuring dramatic moments in an attempt to mask certain technical tricks. The script also isn’t quite sure how to balance its overall commentary about patriarchal oppression with the late introduction of class consciousness and a rather baffling supernatural element that was only minimally foreshadowed, which somewhat blunts what should be the triumphant culmination of its thesis.

Paradise Hills is a film that knows the system is broken, but it can’t quite commit to either going down in an unsettling blaze to leave the audience discomfited like its predecessors, or to burning that system down. The half-measure it finds instead makes for neater narrative closure, but it left me imagining what could have been.

Unlike many horror films, however, the common third-act stumbling block isn’t enough to bring down the entire film. Paradise Hills is still a movie worth watching — both for its stunning looks and the Big Ideas it lays out without a single trace of irony. If nothing else, it’s left me extremely excited to see what Waddington does next.