Uma (Emma Roberts) wakes up in an unfamiliar room. It turns out to be a sort of rehab clinic, run by The Duchess (Milla Jovovich). It’s not specified why Uma has been sent here, but she’ll be kept for two months. Determined to escape and to take her roommates (Danielle MacDonald, Awkwafina) with her, Uma discovers disturbing truths about the facility.
According to the best estimate I can find, Paradise Hills cost roughly 6 million euros. Every last cent of it is up on screen. This is a film with a cast full of talented young women whose stars are on the rise, but the real stars of the show are costume designer Alberto Valcárcel and production designer Laia Colet.
We first see Emma Roberts’ Uma in blue lipstick with a headpiece over her face like a cage, as she sings a song at her wedding while dancers manoeuvre her extravagant dress beneath her. From that moment on the costumes are clearly the most visually arresting element in the film. Later, in the ‘rehab’ facility, we see the women wearing ornate dresses redolent of armour, reflecting in the design the conflict between who they are and who this facility ultimately wants them to be: the fighter vs the decorative bauble. This idea of clothing as a defence mechanism comes through especially strongly with Awkwafina’s Yu, who is almost always seen wearing headphones (already a way of saying ‘leave me alone’) with metal spikes along the headband. The set design is also stunning, with wide shots of the island facility as Uma first tries to escape making it look as though she is trying to run out of an Escher painting and clever contrast between the natural caves beneath the island and the precisely designed nature of the facility itself.
Cinematographer Josu Inchaustegui appears to take much influence from the original Suspiria, though softening the colours a bit; pinks and powder blues in place of Argento’s vivid primaries, he gets a similar otherworldly feel through his bold use of colour. For her part, director Alice Waddington draws all these visual elements together into a film that is always a feast for the eyes, shooting it so that not only are the details well captured, it’s clear that many of the frames are packed with things that will benefit from a second look to catch all the intricacies.
With all this said, it’s a great disappointment that, on a story and character level, Paradise Hills doesn’t come together. While it’s clear enough what Waddington, who is credited with the story, and writers Brian DeLeeuw and Nacho Vigalondo were going for, the screenplay does seem to be assembled, Frankenstein-like, from bits of many old ideas. Most of the texts the writing team nod to are not just well known but classics of their kind, to the degree that to mention them would be to thoroughly spoil the plot. This allows us to always be pretty sure what the secrets behind the facility are, and while that’s not always a problem for a film, when the visual element is so impressive it’s a pity the narrative can’t deliver something similarly striking. The performances are, likewise, solid but not spectacular. Emma Roberts is an active and determined lead and Danielle MacDonald does what she can with a loosely defined character, while Awkwafina is Awkwafina again. Milla Jovovich, largely surprisingly restrained as The Duchess, is better than usual, but not actress enough to give us much beneath the surface of her character, which is a pity given the role.
Paradise Hills is visually interesting enough to be worth a watch, it’s just a great shame that the screenplay and performances can’t deliver the same layers of meaning that are embedded in the costumes, sets and lighting.
Paradise Hills is currently streaming on Netflix.