Originality is a rare beast: often sought and seldom captured. Writer and DirectorIvan Kavanagh’sSon (2021) neither seeks nor captures original-sized lightning in a bottle, but it does proffer a tenacious and pleasingly authentic slice of hybrid horror; unoriginality adorning its shoulders like a gore-soaked pelt as it traverses genre horror lines in search of visceral definition.
Check out our interview with Ivan Kavanagh, director of Son (2021) where he discusses writing and making this contemporary horror film.
Terrors quite possibly real and imagined
Son (2021) begins (as classical horror films are want to do) on an ungodly night with the rain pouring, the wind howling and a dishevelled figure – baring all the celluloid hallmarks of trauma, abuse and lingering fear – seeking refuge from terrors quite possibly real and imagined. This sets the intended tone of the film. What the viewer beholds is so often an ode to utmost brutality, but always the question of possible (or probable) insanity underpins the violence.
Luke David Blumm is a capable presence throughout, full of verve and willingness, and possessed of a most remarkable countenance.
With the table set, we jump forward in time to clichéd American suburbia, and the introduction of Laura. She is a single mother charged with raising David, her young son – spoiler – all the while working harder-than-hard for a relative pittance, and enjoying a warm, loving relationship with her child.
Andi Matichak was compelling asJamie-Lee Curtis 2.0 inHalloween (2018), and her deployment here, which begins with both actor and narrative basking in the psychological vibes of William Peter Blatty, proves to be astute. She is the core of the movie; her success in the role of Laura will make or break the story and happily, she rises to the occasion. Like her (fictional) grandmother she possesses a quirky charm, and be it in moments of quiet intimacy or the full-throated roar of genre projection, she is capable, relatable and genuinely likeable. Her versatility renders audience empathy – even when under extreme duress – an achievable task.
Every visual trick in the horror lexicon
Son (2021) gains forward momentum as we discover that behind the homely façade lies a seemingly foretold evil, as young David succumbs to both psychological and physical torment.
Laura begins to experience concurrent dreams of a repressed past: symbols and images that speak to both the malign influence of an unnamed cult, and of a malevolent entity that once knew her intimately, and now seeks to claim her son. Poor David is thrust further down the path once trodden by Blatty’s damned Regan, as his body withers, contorts and in the presence of his unsurprisingly bewildered doctors, succumbs to coma (with his initial, altogether bloodless recovery never satisfactorily explained).
Ivan Kavanagh succeeds where countless others have failed…
Director Kavanagh acquits himself with gusto here, as he mines every visual trick in the horror lexicon to emphasise David’s murderous transformation. Each room and corridor – be it house, home or hospital – is wreathed in looming shadow and framed from a deliberate distance. We are voyeurs quietly observing this terror from afar, before plunging up close and personally into the bloodlust of David’s newfound appetite for flesh.
As much as the film’s humanity depends on Andi Matichak’s performance, so much of its intended dread rests on the callow shoulders ofLuke David Blumm. He is a capable presence throughout, full of verve and willingness, and possessed of a most remarkable countenance. When first opened, his eyes resemble those of a serpent, before exploding into flame once fully unsheathed, and his mouth seems to twitch and curl independent of the rest of his face. His smile manages to be both sweet and terrifying all at once, and this is only too useful to the task at hand!
He is indeed a memorable sight, and one of the most potent shots in the film is of David, viewed through the prism of purestCarrie (1976). He stands quietly in a bath, his head and the top half of his body caked in viscera; a stunned expression on his bloody face. Laura showers away the crimson mask, and figuratively attempts to wash away her son’s sins.
Practiced gloom and unflinching trepidation
This improvised baptism is one of several unsubtle allusions to (predominantly Roman Catholic) religious iconography. Crosses are a near-constant motif and rapid edits are a typicality, darting to (and from) various framed portraits of sainted figures; most often hung on the walls of every abode in the film. It’s a bit jarring, but the intended associations are very clear to see. You could even go so far as to interpret the tenets of David’s decay and transformation as a subversion of the Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation. This is a fascinating concept that is developed only so far in a literal sense, and that’s probably for the best.
The story becomes a blend of cat-and-mouse and a road trip across some of the darker locales of the American Deep South. This is not exactly a revolutionary setting for a horror movie, but the stereotypical small-town hokum – and the unsubtle supporting souls dwelling therein – paradoxically benefits the film, imbuing it with a manic (and rather colourful) sense of threatening familiarity.
By this point any pretence of stoicism has been abandoned; the inevitability of David’s folly lovingly embraced, and the prospect of serious body horror increased significantly.
The transition from gothic to a more animalistic horror is aided at various junctures by composerAza Hand’s trenchant score, which promotes both a practiced gloom and unflinching trepidation. Like almost everything else inSon (2021) the use of sound and music is a tad on the nose, but it hits all the right notes, if you’ll pardon the phrase.
In the midst of David’s early travails we are introduced to a pair of police officers:Cranston Johnson’s incredulous Steve, andEmile Hirsch’s more sympathetic Paul. The two lawmen follow in the wake of Laura and David, observing the aftermath of the choices made by Laura as she seeks to satiate the burgeoning appetite of her son.
One of the most potent shots in the film is of David, viewed through the prism of purestCarrie (1976).
Johnson’s role is pure cipher; he exists to verbalise all the things Hirsch’s Paul is too polite to say (but really should) to a potential love interest, and is compelled by the narrative to further the question of Laura’s (potential) insanity, which is contrived to the point of laziness.
Laura’s absolute trust in Paul, even as events unravel to the point of ruination, is another hackneyed choice that only gains purpose as the film approaches its climax.
The relationship between mother and son is the essence of this movie
The writing in Son (2021) was not completed with a precision instrument, and most of the dialogue exchanged between Johnson and a decidedly one-note Hirsch is excruciating, and about as subtle asBilly Crudup’s blue phallus inWatchmen (2009).
Hirsch’s performance is a disappointment throughout. He is subdued and detached, and though both script and narrative telegraph his intentions from a thousand paces, his professional and romantic interest in Laura lacks both substance and sizzle.
This doesn’t exactly aid proceedings overall, but the relationship between mother and son is the essence of this movie. Whenever the lens is focussed on anyone other than Matichak and Blumm the pacing unquestionably stutters, but once returned to them, the film’s enticing mix of savagery and quiet intimacy is renewed, and their journey to story’s end achieves sanguinary satisfaction.
So, various performances stumble or fail completely, sub-par writing is a typicality and both the plot and story possess little in the way of originality.
However, thanks largely to two protean central performances that run the emotional gamut from tender to bellicose (and back again), Ivan Kavanagh succeeds where countless others have failed, because Son (2021) is a genuinely good horror movie.
Fountains of claret
Kavanagh is a skilled visual filmmaker, with one particularly elegant jump scare, involving a lot of red spatter and a well-timed cut, showcasing a penchant for wicked mischief amidst bloody terror alaSam Raimi. His photography is sharp and composed, and when framed to showcase the fountains of claret and invasive body horror whichSon (2021) seeks to serve, the impact is immediate and fabulously unhinged.
Confirmed and fully qualified ‘Gorehounds’ will adore this film, and transient viewers will find it easy to follow and compelling to witness, with an ending that is both slasher film 101 and delicious in its wanton creepiness.
It has always been customary to fetishize originality, but here we are gifted a contrarian perspective; a movie that avows and affirms its reductive structure and bevy of prior inspirations, and simply gives us both barrels.
Such conviction is always admirable and in the case of Ivan Kavanagh’s Son (2021), extremely viable.
Son (2021), is available on Digital and On Demand now.
IMDb score: 5.6 | Film Forums: 7.5
Artwork: Richard Williams
Images courtesy of RLJE Films
Studied film at Bournemouth College and Southampton University. Writer, co-creator of Janus Film Review, proud aficionado of film, wearer of many hats and former bane of the academic establishment. And I do like cigars.