Vivarium: Insanely creepy new suburban horror is timely to a disturbing degree

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Bloody Coronavirus. If it isn’t bad enough that it’s the deadliest pandemic in a century, it’s precipitated an enormous rehash of plague-related media. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that some previously uninitiated folks are discovering the brilliance of works such as 28 Days Later, The Andromeda Strain, all of George A. Romero’s back catalogue etc., but it’s also led to people arse-worshipping the passable and rather overrated Contagion, along with some other truly awful virus-predicated films (1999’s Virus should never be watched by anything with a pulse, the lame title is the least of its misdeeds). There’s also the contention that it doesn’t bode well for maintaining spirits during this difficult time, although I’m ambivalent on that score, the darker unpleasantries having always been the most delicious confectionery. The principal concern I have (with the exception of not contracting the disease) is the fact that there are some highly intriguing films being bandied about that are worth a watch on their own merit, but are also creepily coincidental in terms of thematic relevance to the current crisis, and they’re not being propagated nearly as much as the blockbuster-style fluff. I recently watched the high-concept Spanish thriller The Platform, released on Netflix nearly a fortnight ago, that deals with life in a bizarre prison where a gourmet table feast descends from a top-level down through innumerable cells, the lower you are indicating the likelier you are to eat nothing. It served as an excellent parable for unencumbered capitalism and situational greed, and ties in beautifully with the current predicament of many-a-bastard hoarding as many supermarket goods as they can with no thought for others.

With the understandably daunting advent of legally enforced (though axiomatically necessary) social distancing regulations, it couldn’t be a better time for Irish director Lorcan Finnegan’s breakout picture Vivarium. While this confrontational and adeptly unnerving horror doesn’t feature anything in the way of a virus in its narrative, it does freakily tap into a lot of psychological phenomena that are bound to be at an apex right now. Isolation, the impossibility of escape, existential torpor and a general feeling of otherworldliness pervades the film, and while it is unlikely to make you feel any better about our safety and freedom of movement being up in the air, it should hopefully prove enough of a thought-provoking and spine-chilling spellbinder to distract you from all of the pubs being shut.

Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots star as Tom & Gemma, a young couple in the process of hunting for their first home. Gemma is a quaint and very personable middle-class English schoolteacher, whereas Tom is her American beau who does vague odds & sods. While the film was shot all over Europe and its oneiric wrongness indicates that it could be taking place anywhere, I’ve assumed that it’s set in England, for no better reason than all characters barring Tom sounding like they’re from Surrey. The couple meet at Gemma’s school one afternoon as the final bell tolls, and on their drive home, they happen upon an ominously inviting estate agency.

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The sole employee in the building, Martin, is an effortlessly friendly and polite individual, jovial, well-spoken and eager to help. But he’s also strange. Not lovably eccentric, bubbly male version of a cat lady strange, but seriously creepy-ass, hackle-raising strange. He informs the couple of a new suburban development named Yonder, the perfect ‘forever’ home for people like themselves. Tom & Gemma are taken by Martin’s pitch, despite the fact that it is beyond terrifying and you’ll be wanting to force your way into the screen to physically direct them back home. Following Martin’s people carrier to this disquietingly unnatural looking neighbourhood, our lovebirds are more than a little perturbed by the fact that every single house is a seemingly infinite row of identical units, all in precisely the same pale green colour. Giving them a tour of their prospective new abode, no.9 on the particular street, Martin invites them to indulge in the refrigerated welcome hamper of strawberries and champagne, all the while displaying increasingly bizarre gazes and verbal tics. He abruptly vanishes after guiding them into the garden, and the understandably freaked out duo have a mutual ‘fuck this’ moment and quickly bail out into the car to get back to normality. But they can’t get out. Every turn continuously leads back to house no.9. After hours of driving, exhaustion sets in and they relent to spend the night at the house, confident they’ll be able to get home after some good rest and regaining of proper mental wherewithal. Their hopes prove to be utterly fruitless, and there’s also a new issue: they’ve got a newborn on their doorstep.

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Lifting the baby boy out of his cardboard box crib (which is emblazoned with an oddly threatening instruction to look after him), Tom & Gemma take him into the house, and this is where the fun really begins. This infant, this house, this street, this world are all as far removed from ordinary as is fathomable, and it’s the act of physically picking up the nipper and taking him into the fold that facilitates the couple’s ensuing nightmare. Reality loses meaning, mentally-emotionally upending stimuli becomes the norm, and their once steel-strong bond begins to undergo brutal testing. Upon first meeting the couple, Martin enquires as to whether they are parents, and if they were only able to glimpse at their imminent adventure, Tom & Gemma would surely assert they wouldn’t be so even if you paid them in millions.

Clocking in at just under 100 mind-bogglingly uncomfortable minutes, Vivarium feels as though David Lynch and Jam-era Chris Morris tore into the booze and psychotropics a bit too heavily one evening whilst reading Ray Bradbury, and elected to pen a script. The bizarre, perfectly artificial set design makes it seem like Tom & Gemma have become trapped inside a painting, the sky replete with carbon-copy clouds and the roads and houses possessing an uncanny, almost video game hue. Eisenberg and Poots deliver solid performances here as the beleaguered involuntary guardians, their chemistry lending itself to a palpable terror as they are given supplies and observed from afar by the unseen orchestrator of their confounding nightmare. It’s difficult not to be ceaselessly nervous for them as they are separated so swiftly from their prosaic millennial life and conscripted into this positively eldritch surrogacy programme.

It won’t blow your socks off, but I will confidently state that Vivarium is a signifier that bold, substantive and cryptic tales are still being churned out by talented directors. It’s a brilliantly minimalist and intelligent dissection of suburbia, parenthood, gender roles and consumerism. Aided by strong performances and a satirical bent that is as amusing as the darker elements are harrowing,  the film proves a satisfying addition to the psychological horror genre, eschewing jump scares, stock antagonists and easy answers for something wonderfully elliptical and perverse. Essential viewing for these interesting times.

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