Review: DAMSEL Blazes Onto Netflix

New Movie Brings Creature Feature Horror to Fairy Tales

With its title and its premise, Damselcertainly sets itself up as a post-modern riff on the fairy tale formula. We’ve seen this sort of thing many times before: from ‘Red Hot Riding Hood’ to Sondheim and Lapine’s classic Into the Woods, there has always been a market for taking the universally recognized tropes of fairy tales and turning them inside out. Shrek codified a specific angle of attack in 2001, parodying the Disney incarnations of these stories with such acidic contempt that Disney’s subsequent line of fairy tale/princess movies and remakes seem reverse engineered around sidestepping that line of attack, especially when it comes to the trope of the ‘damsel in distress’.

Instead, there’s now a great deal of patronizing efforts to refashion princesses/damsels into an acceptable modern incarnation without doing the actual work of trying to build dynamic and interesting characters, or reexamining the narratives themselves and trying to do better. The trope remains unchallenged, but now it’s wearing a “Future Is Feminism” t-shirt.

I bring all this up because Damsel is not another not another fairy tale. While imperfect, it actually goes through the effort of building a real character and putting her through the dramatic wringer rather than stopping after, “what if the damsel rescued herself!?!?” as if that alone is still enough of an idea to support a feature film.

Damsel is also the latest installment in the Millie Bobby Brown movie star project. She’ll be iconic forever thanks to Stranger Things, and the Elona Holmes movies gave her room to both headline a project and demonstrate a wide range of capabilities beyond what she gets to do as Eleven. Even those Godzilla movies…look, I’m not going to try to argue that those are especially taxing on her range as a thespian, but at the very least they give her a chance to appear in a contemporary setting and play a regular human being, not a traumatized psychic demigod or a Victorian wunderkind. Damsel is an entirely new challenge though: For long stretches of the movie, she is by herself onscreen. The movie lives or dies on whether or not Millie Bobbie Brown, who also produced the film, is compelling to watch with nothing and no one to interact with, and you either pull that off or you don’t.

Brown plays Elodie, the princess of a poor, frostbitten kingdom ruled by her father (Ray Winstone) and not-wicked-but-trying-a-little-too-hard-a-little-overeager-and-things-are-just-naturally-awkward-between-steparents-and-stepchildren-life-is-such-a-rich-tapestry-stepmother (Angela Bassett). When a representative of Queen Isabelle (Robin Wright) from the wealthy kingdom of Aurea arrive to propose a marriage between Elodie and Aurea’s prince Henry (Nick Robinson), it seems like a perfect solution to Elodie’s kingdom’s woes.

Here’s an early choice that suggests that screenwriter Dan Mazeau is putting in the extra work rather than resting on post-modern laurels: The easy choice would be to make Elodie an Arya Stark-adjacent tomboy who is ahead of everyone else in calling out arranged marriages, wealth inequality, impractical women’s outfits, etc. So often, the people behind this sort of fare are in such a rush to get to Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2, they forget that that character doesn’t work without Linda Hamilton in Terminator 1. Here, Elodie is given the chance to be swept away by what’s presented as a swooning romance. Brown naturally conveys intelligence on screen, so her questioning glances and furrowed brow speak volumes, but she also convincingly plays someone being charmed, and she does it without seeming stupid even as we the audience know the bottom is going to fall out eventually.

‘Eventually’ being a key word. If there’s one criticism I can lob at Damsel right out of the gate, it’s that Mazeau and director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (28 Weeks Later) take a bit too long getting things going. A patient, steady escalation isn’t a bad thing in a creature feature, but Damsel’s first act spends a bit too much time clearing its throat before things finally kick off.

But before too long, poor Elodie is thrown down a pit as a sacrifice to a foul-tempered dragon who speaks with the velvety malice of the great Shohreh Aghdashloo. From then on, we are lost in the dark with Elodie as she tries to navigate her way through a labyrinthine system of caves, all the time being hunted and taunted by a creature who combines fire-breathing with good old fashioned passive-aggressive negging. Aghdashloo brings a spirit of wicked fun to this scaly nemesis, and the dragon itself is an imposing new entry in that auspicious species of beast. Fresnadillo is careful to avoid revealing the creature in full for much of the film, but when she arrives on screen the dragon works as both a character and a special effect, the human personality working in concert with animal ferocity.

The way Elodie gathers and uses items, and the way scattered items and writings gradually lay out the backstory of her dire situation, even the structure of the differently themed caverns, all feels very much in conversation with the ongoing fusing of cinematic and video game language, putting Damsel into an emerging canon alongside the likes of 10 Cloverfield Lane, Edge of Tomorrow, Source Code, and more.

Some of this material is actually over-written: for someone cowering and trying to hide, Elodie sure makes a point of reading every sign out loud. I assume that’s a concession to the Netflix second-screen experience, which necessitates that every major point get audibly underlined to appease viewers who are watching on their phone while doing other things. But when the film trusts Brown to carry the entire endeavor on the strength of her abilities, it more than works. If this is a make it or break it test for her as a movie star, she more than conquers the challenge.

It helps that ever since she was a child, Millie Bobby Brown is very, very, very good at playing pain. And boy does she go through it here. Fresnadillo’s background is in horror, and once the dragon arrives you can feel him delighting in the opportunities afforded by having a pissed off fire-breathing antagonist to play with. Damsel is a PG-13 but it gleefully pushes the outer boundaries of that rating from some genuinely gnarly burns to multiple instances of human beings getting popped like meat-filled balloons.

In that sense, Damsel feels like a conscious throwback to the kind of fantasy film we saw before Lord of the Rings came along, before fantasy films were multi-installment sagas that required chunky appendixes of characters, nations, factions, mythologies, etc. Damsel’s aesthetic and defiantly somber tone (completely devoid of any sort of post-Whedon winking or comic relief) bring it closer in line to the likes of Dragonslayer and Legend, a form of fantasy cinema far humbler than the lofty epics the genre now supports.

You can feel Damsel straining against its budget (I wonder if one day people will look back at janky flat green-screen shots with the same affection that I do matte paintings), and its final act is similarly longwinded as its first. The credits start rolling after the 100-minute mark, so it’s not as if the movie is noticeably long for a creature feature, but even so things start to feel a little repetitive before the end. Thankfully, the grand finale to the rivalry between Elodie and her tormenter is satisfying enough to make up for a somewhat clunky landing path.

Damsel doesn’t so much reinvent the wheel as reexamine the wheel from a new angle to demonstrate why it didn’t require reinvention in the first place. In shoring itself of modern affectations, it successfully breathes fresh life into old bones. And as a lifelong fan of fantasy, I find that the genre is richer when there’s a nice balance between the operatic high fantasy epics and entries like this, nasty little cherry bombs that boil the genre down to a defiant girl, a sharp object, and a nasty critter that will not be easy to kill.

Damsel is available on Netflix.

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