Do you know what always proves to be a cinematic tractor beam for me? Movies about cults. Whether it’s a substantive study of psychology and dynamics such as Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Master and Wild Wild Country or the spine-tingling horrors of Hereditary, Rosemary’s Baby and The Wicker Man, these mysterious and disturbing groups have long made for uncomfortably compelling viewing. Organised crime is terrifying, no doubt whatsoever about that, but sects take it to a whole other level. The notion of an omnipotent malignant narcissist, calculating and charming as they build a monolith of indistinguishable followers who forgo normative comforts and relationships to uncompromisingly believe all manner of spurious mumbo-jumbo, is the apex of personhood destruction and almost too troubling a concept to compute.
The actions of a Mafia contract killer, horrific and unjustifiable as they are, retain a modicum of normalised logic because their behaviour is the ultimate conclusion of a lack of conscience coupled with greed. The actions of the Manson Family killers, totally subservient to Charlie on a mental and physical level as they butchered a house full of people for Christ knows what reasons, endures because of the uniform senselessness, but the rhetoric would still be the creepiest of creepy even if the heinous violence wasn’t there. What I’m essentially saying is that I’d rather be sat next to someone from one of the Five Families than a member of the Sea Org, as bizarre as that might sound.
Son, the seventh feature film from Irish miserabilist extraordinaire Ivan Kavanagh, is an imaginatively nasty and visceral horror that resides in the aforementioned spine-tingling camp of antagonistic cult fare. Well-acted and technically sharp, it’s a film that opens with much promise before regrettably proving itself unable to keep up the momentum.
Laura (Andi Matichak) sits in a diner on a cold and rainy night, dishevelled and distressed as she drinks coffee in a filthy, old-fashioned nightgown. When two threatening figures enter and sit at the table behind her, her furtive and panicked state accelerates as she scrambles out of the door to her car, revealing to us that she is also heavily pregnant. Managing to get some distance down a desolate highway before going into labour, Laura screams in agony that is as emotional as it is physical, yelling ”I don’t want you” at the form emerging from her exhausted body. As soon as the crying nipper is in her hands, Laura’s maternal instincts go into overdrive and she tenderly cradles the bundle.
Eight years later, Laura is leading a happy existence as a well-liked elementary school teacher who utterly dotes on her son David (Luke David Blumm), a world away from her esoteric and seemingly harrowing past that we catch a glimpse of at the beginning. Alas, this wholesome mother-and-son unit soon begins to experience some baffling and baleful phenomena. Laura enters David’s room one night to find the boy semi-nude and surrounded by ghoulish-looking strangers, but after she raises the alarm to her neighbours and the police, nothing is found. Not long after, young David is struck down by a strange illness that covers him in ugly lesions, leaves him in extreme pain all over and causes him to vomit up blood.
The doctors are confounded by their routine tests yielding nothing, and everyone is beyond perplexed when David miraculously recovers as if nothing ever happened to him. After a few more unsettling events, Laura confides her darkest secret to Paul (Emile Hirsch), a police officer who responded to the initial bedroom disturbance and has been dutifully watching over her and David: She was raised in a demon-worshipping cult led by her monstrous sicko of a father, and she’s convinced that they are orchestrating all of the weird shit that’s happening in an attempt to get their hands on David. Desperate to protect him, Laura’s motherly love takes her to the very limits of violence and depravity as the lines between consensus reality and psychosis are increasingly blurred.
Sounds pretty cool, right? Well, yes and no would be the fair answer to that. Son is certainly adorned with many aspects that work in its favour, namely the performances. Matichak gives it her all as Laura, a troubled yet tenacious woman who is committed to giving her child the loving and happy existence that she never experienced. She is forced into a mind-breaking maelstrom of impossibly horrific events in such short order, and the gamut of terror, guile and heartbreak that Matichak showcases is nothing if not immersively convincing and moving. At just 11 years of age, Blumm displays a hefty amount of promise as David, a sweet young kid who is by turns adorable and blood-curdling as he struggles with the eldritch ailment that plagues him.
Aza Hand’s deft score, alternating between nails-on-a-chalkboard ambience and rumbling synth sounds, nicely bolsters the atmosphere alongside some great, night-predominant cinematography. As a life-long hater of jump scares, it’s refreshing to report that they are few and far between in Son. I know a lot of horror-hounds love them, but I find them to be a cheap and lazy trick used in place of genuinely interesting narrative developments (If the majority of them were not ‘Oh, it was just the cat’ moments or went beyond yet another opportunity for the protagonist to run away screaming, I might have a change of heart).
Though technically apt and benefitting from a reasonably strong first half, the film ultimately gets weighed down by too many issues. Emile Hirsch is a great actor but he is utilised terribly here, occupying a role that is pretty damn underdeveloped given that he shows up a lot. It also committed a cardinal sin by shoehorning a completely unnecessary and risible romantic trajectory for Laura and Paul (this is thankfully abandoned early on, but it doesn’t feel real for any of the seconds that it occurs and only serves to further hinder the shit that Hirsch has to try and make work), an infuriating genre mainstay nowadays that needs to perish tout de suite.
The cult hook that so effortlessly gets under the viewer’s skin is tarnished via the use of goofy, poorly shot flashbacks to Laura’s time at the group’s compound, killing a narrative velocity that I believe would have worked so much better had her backstory been left largely in our imagination. All of these setbacks are rounded off by our heroine becoming too quickly accustomed to the brutal pragmatism of her situation. I understand that Laura has endured a severely traumatic upbringing and that any threats toward David bring out the lioness in her, but it doesn’t actually account for how rapidly and lucidly she settles into doing the absolutely crazy shit she does to protect him. It’s definitely not Matichak’s fault, she is on fire in the role as I mentioned, but that alone cannot save rushed and clumsy interior logic. The ambiguity of her mental state could have been a saving grace had the script convincingly teased at an overall psychological precariousness but, even if she is merely meant to be insane, the change-ups in behaviour don’t stick the landing.
All in all, it’s the script that’s at fault above anything else. Matichak and Blumm put in memorable work as an utterly determined mother and her mysterious, much-coveted sprog and the film looks and sounds very cool indeed, but it could have bagged itself a safe seat as one of the year’s best horror films were it not for lackadaisical story padding that ultimately gets in the way. As it stands, it’s worth the once-over for a dark and rainy night in with nothing else to do, you’ll thank it for that much.