Family Review – Arthouse Horror Induces Visceral Scares

The attention-grabbing opening scene in writer/director Benjamin Finkel’s Family effectively establishes the film’s peculiar, esoteric, yet bone-chilling tone. Evoking Relic or Ari Aster’s Hereditary, the cold open sees preteen protagonist Johanna (Cameron Dawson Gray) banging on the locked doors of a synagogue, pleading to be let in, only for her mother, Naomi (Ruth Wilson), to stalk across the lawn, drag her out into it, then stab her. Without any explanation or context, Family cuts to a less volatile time, unfurling a strange, unwieldy slice of arthouse horror that’s heightened by Finkel’s knack for viscerally disturbing horror and imagery.

The eleven-year-old Johanna, an only child homeschooled by her mom, has recently been uprooted to mom’s creaky old childhood home for closer access to medical care for her father, Harry (Ben Chaplin), who’s slowly deteriorating from cancer. Things are stable enough to start, but Johanna’s superstition to catch a spirit in an oval ceramic birdhouse as a protective means to watch over her ailing dad turns sinister. Suddenly, the family’s stresses get transformed and exacerbated to a frightening degree as Johanna seems to have caught something more nefarious in her birdhouse instead.

Finkel takes a languid, arthouse approach to his grief metaphor, evocative of Terrence Malick’s handheld photography and A24 arthouse style. The young filmmaker demonstrates a penchant for dwelling on superfluous details and camerawork, like pull-out or wide shots that linger on the breeze rustling through trees or childhood bonding captured from beneath the mesh of a trampoline. It’s the type of excess that feels more like a budding filmmaker trying to infuse their debut with their entire breadth of filmmaking knowledge rather than servicing the story. It also winds up creating a cold distance between the audience and its central, unreliable narrator.

Family dwells in that melancholic and terrifying sense of fear and grief that stems from watching a loved one die slowly and the toll that it takes on everyone. Naomi is so thoroughly trapped in her caretaker role that she’s initially introduced as callous and rigid, more prone to scolding Johanna at the dinner table than positive reinforcement. Worse, Harry’s increasing loss of health leaves Johanna neglected and isolated. It’s there where Johanna’s sense of reality shifts; eerie happenings ramp up in earnest, and yet her parents insist it’s the machination of an unruly child.

Cameron Dawson Gray is remarkable as the young Johanna, a desperately lonely child forced to navigate her upended sense of reality entirely on her own. Wilson is imposing and terrifying, with enough subtle nuance and occasional warmth to instill doubt. The shifts in tone and reality come swiftly. One scene sees Naomi give Johanna a sandwich for lunch, where the girl horrifically discovers it’s filled with broken glass. She runs to her grandfather (Allan Corduner), a rabbi in the cold open’s synagogue, who brings her deeply worried parents in for mediation. The constant push and pull in these tonal shifts are meant to maintain a sense of ambiguity, to keep audiences guessing whether an overactive imagination steeped in fear is to blame or something more, but it further contributes to the unwieldy nature of the storytelling.

What Finkel does remarkably well, though, is crafting visceral scares and bone-chilling imagery with an oppressive, claustrophobic atmosphere. The sound design is skin-crawling and creepy, ensuring every creak and moan the house makes puts you on edge, and that’s before the inhuman whispers and clicks signaling an otherworldly presence. Above all, Finkel mines the uncanny valley for maximum terror, tweaking and stretching familiar silhouettes and frames to viscerally disturbing effect. It’s not just the way the filmmaker distorts the image of the family pet, for example, that unnerves, but how he lets these moments quietly linger, trapping Johanna with them far longer is comfortable.

The film’s climax goes full throttle on the intensity, but when all is said and done, Family remains elusive in its mythology. It’s the type of arthouse horror that makes more sense from a metaphorical standpoint than narratively. There’s vast potential on display from Finkel, especially where the horror is concerned. The filmmaker wears his influences on his sleeves to deliver a bold, esoteric vision. While it might be too aloof and enigmatic for its own good, the distinct approach to horror is so profoundly unsettling that it’s an easy recommendation for visceral frights alone.

Family made its world premiere at SXSW. Release info TBD.

3 skulls out of 5

Originally Published Here.

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