Fifty minutes into Andrew Desmond’s The Sonata, the plot thickens: After racking their brains over a seemingly incomprehensible piece of music, the symphony of the movie’s title, Rose (Freya Tingley) and Charles (Simon Abkarian) discover a cryptic series of heat-activated symbols hidden amongst its melodies, chords and rhythms. Suddenly, the piece isn’t so incomprehensible anymore. Rose and Charles are on the case, ready to decipher the symbols’ meaning and find the message Rose’s father, the late composer Richard Marlowe (Rutger Hauer), hid in his final masterwork. What fun!
The horror genre knows how to have a blast, but pulpy, detective mystery horror movies are in short supply: Go back to 2014’s As Above, So Below for a recent example. Seeing that sleuthing spirit on screen in 2020 is a delight. But the operative phrase here is “fifty minutes into.” Desmond brings Rose and Charles around to their revelation with only around 30 minutes remaining on the clock, which leaves little room for his late-stage Da Vinci Code angle to fully breathe. Oh, the mystery is solved, no doubt about that, but the pleasure of a good mystery isn’t the solution but the solving itself, and The Sonata doesn’t have time to luxuriate in the latter. It’s too focused on finishing the puzzle than putting the pieces together, which is a shame.
The Sonata, as a whole, is a cluster of muddled character motivations strung together with overbearing exposition: Rose’s backstory is doled out in pieces and bits by Charles, her agent, a man who’s equally as interested in shielding her from the truth about her wacko genius father as he is in propelling her to stardom. She’s a violin virtuoso but knows next to nothing about Richard. She knows so little of him, in fact, that she believes he’s actually been dead for years, when in fact he’s just been in France, toiling away in the isolation of his great, big, creepy mansion, carving out his asymmetrical parting salvo to the world, and to his own daughter, note by note.
Of course Richard has dark designs, and of course the sonata is sinister by its very nature, but for all of the music’s malice, the movie is thin on dread and lacking invention. Rose and Charles are separated not long after The Sonata starts—Rose to France while Charles stays in London trying to track down leads about the discomfiting, infernal marks Rose has found littered about Richard’s mansion and peppered across his sheet music. Structurally, the distance slows the film down to a crawl, and doesn’t even pay off with good haunted house scares. Rose occasionally sees lurking evil staring over her shoulder, or hears disembodied children’s laughter echoing in the empty estate, but that’s about it. As ominous horror film manors go, Richard’s could use renovation.
Whether intentionally or not, Desmond almost supplies himself built-in justification for The Sonata’s subdued scares. If Richard means for Rose and Charles to seek out the music’s purpose by leaving them clues to find and spooky riddles to interpret, then it makes sense that the mansion is just a mansion. The trouble is that the audience’s patience is never paid off, a required investment for any slow-burn movie; the closest it comes is with the introduction of the investigatory element, which comes long after the expiration date on the average horror fan’s patience for teases and twists has passed. All Desmond needs to do to salvage his efforts at this point is literally anything terrifying. But while the director clearly has a few tricks up his sleeve for hitting his viewers with the heebie jeebies, what he doesn’t have, at least for The Sonata, is a sense of how to weave those tricks into a unified, cohesive narrative.
Director: Andrew Desmond
Writer: Andrew Desmond, Arthur Morin
Starring: Freya Tingley, Simon Abkarian, James Faulkner, Rutger Hauer, Catherine Schaub-Abkarian
Release Date: January 10, 2020
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.