Entwined, the handsome but sluggish debut feature from Greek director Minos Nikolakakis, is an instructive case study in the essential difference between a situation and a story. It is not a bad film by any stretch, at least in terms of its raw craftsmanship. The performances are sturdy, the shots are pleasing to the eye, and the atmosphere is richly realized. Both Nikolakakis and cinematographer Thodros Mihopolous exhibit a knack for using mise-en-scène to evoke a distinct mood of sun-dappled mystery and menace. Unfortunately, all this craft is in the service of a markedly uninvolving scenario, one in which nothing truly unexpected occurs and even an inattentive viewer will find themselves perpetually two steps ahead of the witless protagonist.

It seems obvious what first-time screenwriter John De Holland and director Nikolakakis – who also has a story credit – intended with Entwined. The feature was plainly conceived as a magical-realist folk-horror tale, although it never really presents its story in a way that elicits scares. The film is perhaps best described as a supernatural tragedy, with a liberal sprinkling of fantasy, horror, and romance elements – such that definitively assigning it to one genre or another is probably a dubious task. Ultimately, what the filmmakers present is a diffident, low-budget modern reimagining of a mythological creature, the sort of film that refrains from ever saying the name of the beastie in question or even acknowledging that the characters might recognize it for what it is. This, unfortunately, is Entwined’s fatal conceptual flaw: The feature’s limp drama is contingent on the hero never grasping that he has blundered into a dark fairy tale.

Following the death of his father, British-educated physician Panos (Prometheus Aleifer) returns to his native Greece, accepting a position as the village doctor in a tiny, rural hamlet. It’s the sort of backwater settlement that has somehow resisted over a century’s worth of encroaching modernity – there are no landline phones, only one retail establishment, and virtually no residents under the age of 60. The exception is Danae (Anastasia Rafaellla Konidi), a strange, dreamy young woman who Panos encounters on the road. Given the chilly reception he receives from the villagers – and their apparent lack of medical ailments – it’s unsurprising that the bored physician takes an interest in the lovely Danae, who dwells in a rustic cabin nestled deep in the nearby forest. During a courtesy visit to her remote home, he notices odd patches of scaly, bark-like growth on Danae’s skin, which Panos takes to be a rare, untreated genetic disorder.

More alarming to the doctor, however, is the presence of Danae’s elderly father (Kostas Laskos), a volatile drunkard who lurches through the cabin’s shadows like a growling beast. Panos eventually witnesses what seems to be an act of incestuous sexual abuse, sparking a violent outburst from the old man, who is gravely injured in the resulting scuffle. After transporting Danae’s dazed and bloodied father to town, Panos returns to the cabin to assure the young woman that “the nightmare is over.” However, the fey, childlike Danae – who talks like a character from The Tempest, dresses like 1970s Stevie Nicks, and moons around like Jodie Foster in Nell (1994) – seems oddly unconcerned about her father’s fate. She plies Panos with a strange, fragrant liquor and pleads breathily for his comforting embrace.

Before you can say “magical thralldom,” Panos finds himself slipping into a narcotic fugue. Hours and then days slip away, and soon he’s not only succumbing to Danae’s kittenish sexual overtures but also doing her chores – particularly gathering dead wood for the cabin’s hearth, which she insists must always be burning. In moments of clarity, Panos realizes that his abrupt, wholesale abandonment of his old life represents a kind of madness, but the forest actively stymies his attempts to find his way back to the main road. Danae, for her part, maintains a façade of sweet deference, her language and attitude always suggesting that Panos is the master of the house, even though she is plainly the one in control. She gently insists that nothing of value lies in the cold, cruel modern world beyond the trees. All she and Panos need is one another.

In theory, a modern-day update to the dryad myth of ancient Greece – which is exactly how Entwined thinks of itself – could make a fascinating horror story. One of the film’s fundamental problems, however, is that it isn’t much of an update. Once Panos spends his first night in Danae’s cabin, all the potential contemporary complications in such a story are taken off the table through supernatural hand-waving. Panos’ cellphone quickly runs out of battery life, the forest repeatedly sends him wandering in circles, and any attempt he makes to actively harm Danae or her beloved trees results in violent retribution from animated vines, roots, and branches. (This touch unfortunately evokes Sam Raimi’s supremely nasty 1981 cult hit The Evil Dead, which couldn’t be much further from Entwined, tonally speaking.) Indeed, the feature’s modern-day setting does not end up mattering much at all. One can easily imagine a nearly identical film set any time between, say, 1700 and the present.

What the viewer is left with, then, is a story in which a person with a modern worldview is effectively trapped in a folk tale, but this modestly intriguing scenario proves to be a curiously inert one in the filmmakers’ imagination. Other than some half-baked rumbling about the clash between Panos’ materialism and the otherworldly situation in which he finds himself, Entwined is unwilling to employ its protagonist’s fish-out-of-water perspective to any fruitful end. The strangely clueless Panos seems to have no notion that he’s stumbled into an archetypical dragon’s lair, and the screenplay betrays not a jot of self-awareness about its reliance on older-than-history tropes. It’s not just that Panos has evidently never read a fairy tale – he’s also never seen a vampire movie, as the fact that his new girlfriend is very obviously an ageless, life-force-devouring monster never seems to occur to him. Whatever pity Aleifer’s performance elicits is continually undermined by his character’s implausible obliviousness. (One need not be familiar with Charles Perrault’s “Bluebeard” to know that it’s a bad sign when a character warns their beloved from ever setting foot in a locked room.)

The net effect of these missteps is that Entwined ends up being an astonishingly dreary, predictable film for a story about a vampiric tree nymph. Even a viewer unfamiliar with the minutiae of Greek mythology will see every plot beat coming, which blankets the whole enterprise in a drab pall of dutiful obligation. Simply put, it’s a tale whose broad outline is glaringly obvious, and yet the filmmakers are still determined to spend 89 minutes fleshing it out to no particular end. The film’s ostensible wild card is Panos’ British half-brother, George (played by scenarist De Holland), who spends far too much screen time worrying about his sibling’s fate before eventually tracking him down in Greece. However, this subplot ultimately serves no purpose other than to needlessly reconfirm Danae’s predatory patterns.

Entwined’s most substantial problems are rooted in these big-picture conceptual and storytelling blunders. In other respects, it’s a solid enough film. Both the film’s cinematography and its production design contribute to an eerie bucolic aesthetic that feels appropriately primeval rather than gothic. Konidi deserves praise for the consistency of her slippery characterization: Danae remains an outwardly airy, enigmatic figure to the end, never betraying a hint of malevolence toward Panos even as she literally consumes his vitality. The character is not so much wicked as she is utterly alien, a creature who dwells in a world of bloody, primordial magic where Manichean conceptions of good and evil have little meaning. Unfortunately, Konidi’s engagingly ambiguous portrayal doesn’t count for much, given that Entwined does nothing of substance with it. When director William Friedkin tackled the dryad myth in his notoriously troubled horror feature The Guardian (1991), he was at least able to transform it into the stuff of gory, B-movie madness. Entwined has the patina of art-film respectability, but the schematic lifelessness of its story ultimately makes it the less engaging, less imaginative work.

Rating: C

Entwined will be available to rent from virtual cinemas on Aug. 28, 2020.