One of these days I’m going to make a list called “Movies that scared the bejesus out of me and I can’t even figure out why,” and Fragile will be somewhere very close to the top. Maybe it’s the combination of the inherent creepiness of abandoned hospitals and the fact that the ghost, when you finally see her, is so freakishly hideous that if she popped up in the mirror behind me I would genuinely have screaming hysterics. She’s not quite as terrifying on a second viewing once you’re braced for the horror, but my God was she a nasty shock the first time around.
Fragile stars Calista Flockhart, who to her credit never gives off the vibe that she’s slumming in a genre film, or seems anything less than engaged with the story and her character. She plays Amy, a nurse recovering from some sort of traumatic incident that resulted in a child’s death, and for which Amy blames herself. (This incident is never completely elucidated, the filmmakers – in a show of restraint rare in the breed – having refrained from telling us about it in five minutes of “As you know, Bob” exposition.) Apparently looking for somewhere quiet to recover, Amy takes a temp job as a replacement night nurse at a nearly-deserted hospital that’s being shut down and retains only a handful of pediatric patients on one floor.
Of course, there are Creepy Things going on at the hospital. We know this because everyone is scared shitless of noises in the night. Or at least the women and children are; hot doctor Richard “I know I’ve seen that guy before but out of Van Helsing and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which one do I least want to admit to having seen?” Roxburgh pooh-poohs all night-bumping things. Soon Amy makes friends with Maggie, a little girl of unspecified illness who claims to have seen Charlotte, the “mechanical girl” who lives on the abandoned upper floor.
(Maggie is played by Yasmin Murphy, who is that rarest of cinematic unicorns: a child actor who can convincingly display all the emotions the script calls for, and who is adorable without inducing diabetes. At some point, someone seems to have made the radical decision to direct and film her as if she were an actual person, as opposed to the more usual tactic of treating kids in movies like Generic Moppet #3 bought sight unseen from the Toys R Us catalog. Actually, to their credit, the filmmakers made more than one unusual and gutsy decision about her character.)
Charlotte spends a lot of time being really pissed off. Also, she can make people’s bones break, and does with alarming frequency. Initial poking-around by Amy seems to indicate that Charlotte was a patient there decades ago, who had osteogenisis imperfecta – brittle bone disease – and had to wear those braces that are actually screwed into your flesh and don’t tell me those aren’t a bad idea because I saw what they did to that guy’s leg on Downton Abbey.
The bulk of the movie follows the “But what does it want?” plotline. Charlotte is clearly angry, and gets angrier and more violent as the movie goes on. Bones break. People get flung out of windows. Blocks with letters on them form irate messages. Alarming things happen with elevators. Amy tries to figure out what the hell’s going on. Well, what’s going on, of course, is easier for the viewer to figure out than for Amy and the Hot Doctor: Charlotte wants Maggie to stay in the hospital. Forever.
I love ghost stories. There aren’t enough of them. Not real ghost stories like this one, that depend not on gore and jump scares but on the idea that the dead have come calling and they’re really pissed and couldn’t tell you why even if they wanted to. Fragile does a wonderful job of evoking that slow, creeping unease of abandoned hospitals and asylums where misery seems to soak into the walls and hang around long after all the people are gone. The build-up is both slow and interesting, unusual in a world where you generally get one or the other but not both, and the climax, which could easily have degenerated into “Rocks fall and everyone dies,” instead remembers that the movie has been focused on the relationships among the characters and keeps the focus there where it belongs.
[REC]‘s Jaume Balagueró directed Fragile, so I probably shouldn’t be surprised at its quality. But I was, pleasantly.
So what’s the verdict? Four stars. That might seem high for what on the surface seems to be a fairly conventional genre film, but I think it deserves them for creepiness, atmosphere, not a few genuine scares, and stubborn refusal to take the path of least resistance and fall back on genre cliches.