VIVARIUM

★★★★

WHAT MAKES A HOUSE A (HORRIFIC) HOME?

MONSTER FEST REVIEW
By Jake Watt
20th November 2019

Some new realtors are astounded to discover how many people hate real estate agents. Unfortunately, some of that hatred is justified. It's the bad apples in the barrel that give every other real estate agent a bad name ... but there is more to it than that. There's something unlikable about the profession on a deep, primal level. There is also a huge turnover in the real estate industry, and statistics show the number of active real estate agents falls and rises with the economy. When times are good and consumers are optimistic, the number of active real estate agents rises, so even though a large number might not renew their licenses, a fresh batch of newly licensed agents fills that void.

Where do the old ones go? Where do the new ones come from? Lorcan Finnegan's science-fiction horror film, 'Vivarium' (the name refers to one of those enclosures for keeping and raising animals for observation), takes a few disturbing guesses.

Opening with a close-up of a cuckoo kicking a chick out of a bird's nest, the film quickly introduces us to handyman Tom (Jesse Eisenberg, 'Zombieland: Double Tap', 'Justice League') and his teacher girlfriend Gemma (Imogen Poots, 'The Art of Self-Defense', 'I Kill Giants'). This young couple with playful chemistry is looking to buy their first house, which brings them into the orbit of a real estate agency selling the Yonder development.

The estate agent, Martin (Jonathan Aris, 'All the Money in the World', 'The Death of Stalin'), is weird and creepy but somehow convinces the pair to drive out to inspect No. 9, one of hundreds of empty identical starter homes at the newly mass-produced estate.

After being abandoned by Martin during the tour, the duo discovers that the sea of eerie pastel green residential homes never ends (the design of the suburb, as well as the interior staging of the starter home, is brutally monochromatic). Every time the couple drives away, they arrive back at the same location: No. 9.

After burning the house down in an effort to attract help, they wake up in the street to find the residence mysteriously undamaged and a baby in a box, with a note explaining that once they've raised the child, they will be free to leave.

Unfortunately, the inhuman and rapidly-growing sprog (referred to by Tom as a "creepy little mutant") is incredibly annoying. Within 90 days he's already at the height of a five-year-old (played by Senan Jennings, then later by Eanna Hardwicke). Laced with black humour that never gets in the way of the horror, Finnegan's film cleverly exploits the boy's uncanny semi-humanity. He communicates via mimicry in an unsettlingly low-pitched voice. He wakes his parents up by unleashing an ear-blistering shriek. He is prone to extended bouts of barking like a dog (I like to imagine this is a deep cut reference to the sex noises from 'The Sims 1'). Tom and Gemma don't understand him and he doesn't understand them either, relying on his adoptive parents for meals and a few joyless hugs.

The film explores the perils of suburbia via satirising typical issues and offering up grotesque caricatures of real-life parenting discomforts, from the exhaustion to the collapse of privacy to the difficulty of instilling a moral code in an offspring that often seems alien.

One day, Tom notices that the front yard is made of a Play Doh-like substance (he throws a cigarette on the lawn and watches the grass wither away via a Claymation effect) and devotes himself to digging his way out. Meanwhile, despite repeating "I am not your mother", Gemma eventually tries to befriend the boy, both out of loneliness due to Tom's neglect and a desire to better understand the nightmarish situation.

'Vivarium' owes some thematic inspiration to David Lynch's 'Eraserhead' and Vincenzo Natali's 'Splice' - the film explores the perils of suburbia via satirising typical issues and offering up grotesque caricatures of real-life parenting discomforts, from the exhaustion to the collapse of privacy to the difficulty of instilling a moral code in an offspring that often seems alien. For example, the boy's favourite TV show is black and white static, the image so subliminal and psychedelic that the adults can barely look at it, not unlike typical Cartoon Network fare such as 'Steven Universe' or 'Adventure Time with Finn and Jake'. Tom and Gemma's relationship is impacted by the bizarre turn of events, with Tom eventually staying out later and later at night to "work" (i.e. dig his hole). They get regular deliveries of strange food which is barely edible, making dinner a silent and gruelling chore. Gemma hopes that raising the boy like a normal child will lead to their freedom, but Tom thinks that placing him in danger might offer an opportunity to escape - the horror here stems from the reluctant parents' attempts to keep this weird lifeform alive and do right by him as he grows.

Eisenberg and Poots (reunited after 'The Art of Self-Defense') are supremely likeable, oscillating between young love, the irritation of confinement, depression and dawning horror. Jennings and Hardwicke are also impressive as the rapidly-ageing boy, who is simultaneously comical and spookily otherworldly.

'Vivavirum' slots in neatly next to Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe's 'Greener Grass' and Richard Stanley's 'Color Out of Space' to form a loose trilogy of surreal releases in 2019 that skewer our perceptions of suburbia and the family unit. Director Lorcan Finnegan has brought to life a disturbing, thoughtful and bleakly funny mutant of a movie.

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