It’s hard to reflect on “Saltburn” without spoiling the film itself, but I will try my best. It evokes many other films and novels that set psychological thrillers at Private Schools. Saltburn starts off at Oxford, where we meet Oliver. Oliver isn’t quite as cool as the other students in his class. He shows up on the first day wearing a tie and jacket, and is immediately teased. Thankfully for Oliver, he soon meets Felix, the coolest boy in school. Felix develops a soft spot for Oliver, and the rest is history. Until, as expected, the film has devolved into a completely different genre by the end. “Saltburn” was written and directed by Emerald Fennell (Promising Young Women.)
In 2017 Cory Finley’s film “Thoroughbreds” was released, starring horror dream girl Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke. In 1988 “Heathers” hit theaters, starring Christian Slater and Winona Ryder.
I am passionate about the sub-genre of academic horror, which is a more prolific category than you might imagine. Novels like Bunny, The Secret History, A Separate Peace, The Basic Eight…even Piranesi come to mind. And these works far exceed simply being set on campuses. There is a sense of rich academic history, ritual, tradition, elitism, and a lurking darkness that clashes with the new order.
Typically, there is also a “class” element here. Rich private school kids bullying the new student from a humble family who is there on a scholarship, for example. There is a natural spirit of revenge when an elite, wealthy and typically terrible family gets what they deserve. Something that many horror films capitalize on. I commend “Saltburn” for telling that story in a different way.
My usual commentary on films is that they are “about 30 minutes too long.” And though this is certainly true for “Saltburn,” I didn’t mind its length as much as I usually do. Its dreamy cinematography and slow burn story had a pay off that was worth the wait.
Emerald Fennell made a visually stunning film. Honestly, I am surprised to see as many negative reviews by major publications as I have. Though I think it’s a bit self indulgent, overall I think it's strong fever dream storytelling.