It's not so long since we were singing the praises of Jason Figgis' post-apocalyptic CHILDREN OF A DARKER DAWN. So we were thrilled to be offered the opportunity of previewing his latest film via an online screener.

ISABEL MANN certainly kicks off in striking style, Isabel (Ellen Mullen) fleeing through the woods and to the safety of her family home as a male vampire gives chase. Caked in blood, Isabel makes it through the front door. Her father shouts acknowledgement from another room; she quickly races upstairs and into the shower, washing off all traces of gore.

We then meet Isabel proper. It's been 8 years since her mother died, and since then father David (Gerry Herbert) has looked after Isabel and her two brothers - aspiring heavy metal singer Marcus (Kevin Buckley) and reluctant school kid Josh (Killian O'Farrell).

Isabel herself is a senior at her local school, based in a small Irish town from where nine students have recently gone missing - along with bank clerk Susan (Michelle Miley). Because of this, the school has little choice but to allow foul-mouthed Detective Inspector Witham (Neill Fleming) and his somewhat more reasonable assistant Barrett (Matthew Toman) into its walls to interview the students.

They soon come to interview Isabel's ex-boyfriend Aaron (Adam Tyrrell). As a direct result of his answers, Witham feels the need to chat with Isabel the following day. Having discovered that three of the missing girls were on their way to meet Isabel when they vanished, and that her late mother had a history of mental illness, he believes he now has a prime suspect.

Indeed, we learn via a message that best pal Jay (Saorla Wright) leaves on Isabel's 'phone that she has become withdrawn in recent weeks. She's stopped talking to Aaron; hardly shows her face at school; snubs Jay in favour of hanging around with weird, self-harming Sam (Emily Forster). Despite Jay's pleas for Isabel to get in touch, Isabel continues to isolate herself in her bedroom.

As Witham tightens his investigation - interviewing David at his home, searching her bedroom for clues - flashbacks continue to drip-feed the facts to us: from earlier, simpler times of Isabel sneaking a crafty cigarette with Jay or making love to Aaron, to her participating in communal bloodsucking orgies in the nearby woods...

Her father's concern for her grows once he realises she's in the frame for several of her friend's murders. Meanwhile, Witham is about to learn that there's more to this story than meets the eye...

CHILDREN OF A DARKER DAWN was a highly impressive feature, boasting considered aesthetics, standout performances from its young cast and an intelligent approach to what could've easily been B-movie material. For his take on the vampire genre, Figgis has taken all of these attributes and upped his game. It's a great film.

Conceptually, we're on similar ground: children learning to adapt to a new way of life. But this is a leap forward in all other respects...

From the monochrome beginning, through the many laconic exterior shots, to the lingering wide compositions of school corridors and hospital wards, ISABEL MANN is a beautifully photographed film. Kudos to Figgis' editing and Alan Rogers' cinematography for making what is easily one of the most visually lyrical genre films in recent memory.

Shot in the counties of Dublin, Galway and Wicklow, the locations used are stunning - and Rogers films them as beautifully as anything you'd see in DELIVERANCE.

Figgis continues to be an excellent director of young people (several of which come from his DARKER DAWN days), ensuring the performances are always convincing and heartfelt. In fact, the only bum note in this regard is an English actor who plays the police superintendent. He only has two scenes though, so it's no major quibble.

Mullen is fantastic in the lead role, imbuing her character with all the melancholy and confusion required to breathe sympathy into someone who's been groomed to kill and is starting to enjoy it - though never truly understanding why. Wright impresses too as the worries friend, as do Fleming (funny and intense) and Herbert (authentically protective).

While the film has a slow pace and some scenes that could be said to waver on the edge of 'experimental', Figgis' script is thankfully fluid and intriguing enough to engage from the offset - you're not going to get bored. And, just when you think you know what's coming next, the film delivers a great curveball when a major character dies and events start rolling in another direction...

Clearly shot on a low budget, that doesn't stop the film - shot in full HD - from looking superb. Nor does it hinder its chances of getting under the skin with its fresh approach to violent horror - a gory montage of vampiric murders midway through is shot in slow-motion and set to the innocuous strains of a relatively light alt-pop tune. Let's not underestimate Michael Richard Plowman's music while we're at it - sombre, ambient, considered.

In fact, "considered" is a word that well describes every aspect of THE ECSTASY OF ISABEL MANN. It's a film that's been laboured over; crafted with extra care. It treats the genre with intelligence, with respect and in a serious manner.

Well worth checking out.

Review by Stuart Willis

Written and Directed by Jason Figgis