You still see her sometimes, don’t you?
It doesn’t matter that it’s been thirty years since Elton’s (Nicholas Wilder) sister died at age four. He still sees her in the corner of his eyes, the shadows, and his mind. This sense of longing has taken hold of his actions many times throughout his life as evidenced by the scars on his forearms—a pattern of self-violence for which his mother Susan (Dee Wallace) and younger brother James (D’Angelo Midili) are keenly aware. But the hope is that those days are behind them. It seems he shares this hope too, a healthy relationship with Alex (Sarah Schoofs) providing love to fill that void. But perhaps that potential to forget is why his sister’s presence has returned. Perhaps his subconscious isn’t quite ready to let her go.
This is where Elton finds himself in Elias‘ latest film Ayla. He’s at a crossroads, one wherein he’s finally found his toes curling over the edge of a cliff separating past from future. It’s taken longer than everyone else in his family and it’s obviously been a more painful road too, but none of that matters as long as he’s willing to take the plunge and jump towards a greater unknown free from the suffering of long-ago tragedy. Of course his mind would therefore supply him one last jolt to coax him back under the surface, to test whether he was ready to turn the page. So when he and Alex travel to her family’s old decrepit cabin in the woods, the atmosphere becomes pregnant with supernatural possibility.
Elias taps into tulpa, a mystic Tibetan concept that states a being or object can be created through the powers of the mind and/or spirit. All that grief within Elton has turned into an obsession he cannot turn off even with Alex wrapped around his body. Sex cannot distract him from what he truly desires: a reunion with the little girl he’s never accepted was gone. Ayla (Tristan Risk isn’t a four-year old anymore, though. Now she’s fully grown, naked, and watching from his nightmares, beckoning him to push aside the physical for that of the metaphysical. She’s right there waiting to be led back via an impossible act of rebirth only he can catalyze. Once she’s here, Elton will forsake all others to protect her like he couldn’t before.
The film is a slow burn of quiet, contemplative shots depicting Elton’s gradual descent within his warped psyche. We cannot be sure of what’s real as Elias is constantly cutting scenes short in an intentional bid to disorient. We watch as Elton becomes trapped within his head, imprisoned within a locked garden shed, and chained to the visceral body horror that is his sister’s reclamation of breath. But while there’s a blatant fluidity between reality and fantasy, Ayla does manifest. His love for her is powerful enough to give her corporeal form whether or not the woman standing before us is actually the deceased reanimated or merely the darkness that’s always threatened to consume him whole. Everyone else can see her, but they do so with necessary fear.
What’s great about this fact is that it isn’t a fear for their lives. Susan, James, and Alex aren’t worried Ayla will attack them with a knife and eat their entrails—this isn’t that kind of horror. They fear what her presence will do to Elton. Whether she’s some stranger he found on the street who is using him or a demon that took human form, her existence is a danger to his own. And whenever they confront him about it, she grows ill or scared. His outward anger becomes an internal cue for her to reclaim the desperation necessary to turn his attention back to her wellbeing. He will do anything for her. One could say everything he’s ever done was in direct service of her memory.
Elias pulls no punches in this regard. He isn’t blind to what putting Ayla onscreen as a sexual creature does to his characters’ dynamic. There are incestuous overtones throughout that could also be construed as masturbatory depending on whether you believe she’s an independent entity culled from death or an illusory extension of Elton himself. Her roles as object needing protection and being seeking completion are blurred, her lack of sound and intelligence beyond impulse an indicator of her position as tool rather than inspiration. This is insanity being given shape to challenge its owner in a war he is ill-equipped to fight. Either he acknowledges that she must be destroyed to save himself or he accepts his fate and joins her in the only world he can.
The aesthetic is commendable considering the budget with cinematography that imbues a sense of Elton’s isolation and creature effects presenting a suitably creepy mix of bodily fluids. There are a few memorable shots and performances (Wallace is a standout) to keep our interests piqued even as we wonder if the story can still surprise once the inevitable family reunion occurs. I would question a couple comical scenes (Andrew Sensenig and Bill Oberst Jr. separately appearing with double entendre) that took me out of the otherwise tense dread, but for the most part Elias retains the somber tone necessary to prepare for death’s arrival. Closure isn’t something easily won after all. Its process often gets worse before better as that which is powerfully absent seeks to destroy what’s not.