Monday, October 12, 2020

The Stepford Lives


One of my favorite measurements for a horror movie is to examine what kind of dreams I have the night I watch it. For Vivarium, they were WEIRD.

That's a good thing.

Quick Plot: Gemma and Tom are growing increasingly frustrated by their limited findings in their quest for the perfect home. Having exhausted the nearby possibilities, they decide to check out Yonder, a new suburban development that seems a little far out of the way of Gemma's schoolhouse and Tom's landscaping job.

They're led to Yonder by Martin, an incredibly odd realtor who doesn't seem to know how to speak to other human beings. Yonder itself seems nice enough: street after street of identical avocado green 2-bedroom homes with modern kitchens and compact yards. There's even a pre-decorated baby boy's room just waiting for the right couple to give to their first male child.

Just as Gemma begins to question where the rest of the neighbors are, Martin vanishes, leaving Gemma and Tom to hop back in their car and hightail it out of there. 

Except, of course, there is no way out.

Well, maybe I spoke too soon. After trying to escape a few of the old fashioned ways, Tom and Gemma receive a mysterious delivery in a Blue Apron-style cardboard box. Unlike their past vacuum-sealed tasteless food, this one contains a newborn baby with a simple message: Raise the child and be released.

Talk about society forcing parenthood on childless couples! The child, it turns out, is a weird little thing, one who ages at an exponential rate but remains a rather horrible, inhuman creature who insists on dressing like a Mormon missionary. Tom and Gemma have agreed to treat it like a thing, feeding it cereal to stop the incessant screaming but avoiding any hints of affection.

One day, Tom discovers some sort of gooey dirt underneath his astroturf lawn. With nothing else to do, he starts to dig, hoping he can discover a path out of Yonder or just keep himself busy and farther away from the incredibly creepy Young Sheldon wannabe that wants to be his son. Gemma, a schoolteacher, can't help but become intrigued by the kid's development.

Vivarium is my kind of movie (see my love of the much underrated House Hunting). It's a genuinely unique but focused premise, and writer/director Lorcan Finnegan lays it out with such twisted simplicity that I think I fell in love. Granted, I find the idea of forced parenthood of monster children to be my deepest nightmare, making me an easy mark for this kind of story, but there's a lot more here: a passionate but fragile romantic relationship thrown into a cruel test before it's really ready, suggestions of otherworldy creatures with a terrifying master plan, literal layers of strangeness, and more.

I dug it.

High Points
I truly hope Imogen Poots enjoys genre filmwork because my GOSH is she good at it. This woman deserves a much bigger career than she thus far has, but I wonder if she actively picks her projects because the roles themselves give her so much room to explore. She's as good here as she was in Black Christmas, conveying such a deep well of dying enthusiasm for her life while still having some kind of conscience about her decisions

Low Points
I actually really like how Jesse Eisenberg is used, but I do wish there was just a little more charm to him at the beginning to justify what Gemma really saw in him in the first place

Lessons Learned
I know we all watched The Babadook thinking, "this is the worst child in horror movie existence" but guess what? This kid makes Sam look like Rhoda Penmark as seen by those who didn't suspect her of serial killing. My point here, in terms of a lesson, is that there are simply no bottom to the depths of how awful children can really be

Quarantine has put Vivarium in more prominent spotlight than it might have otherwise, and sure: a story about the insanity of being stuck in one place with the same faces, homeschooling an unstable boy certainly speaks to our time, but in any other year, I think I still would be highly recommending this film. There's a strong sense of discipline at work in Finnegan's work here, and I'm excited to see more. 


  1. I'd avoided the Jesse Eisenberg of this... but if you are giving it a thumbs up I'll try it.

    Have you seen the No-End House season of Channel Zero? It seems to have a somewhat similar premise, maybe.

    1. Yeah, Eisenberg is gonna Eisenberg, but he ends up going through such hell that you can at least appreciate that!

      And I have NOT seen No-End House. I only got about halfway through the first season of Channel Zero. It was fine, but just wasn't grabbing me and I kind of forgot to finish. I might dive into this one though once I get through a few other things.

    2. Watched it last night. It was enjoyably weird... though the horror was a bit dulled, I thought, by the unreality of it all.
      Like, just the realty office was bizarre enough that I would have gone elsewhere.

      I do endorse Channel Zero... with each season being a different tale, and No-End house being my favorite.

  2. I watched this last week and loved it. It's such a breath of fresh air when movies are able to capture a hellish vibe subtly, and I thought Vivarium did that in spades. Gemma and Tom's neighbourhood was truly nightmarish in how maddeningly inescapable it was, and I find that way scarier than demons or brimstone (although I love that shit too, of course). And while there were virtually no classic horror visuals, I still found the last few minutes when Gemma finally snaps on Martin Jr genuinely scary. His reaction and the revealing of more neighbourhood weirdness was excellent. Very glad you brought this one to my attention.

    1. Yes! I know a LOT of people have been underwhelmed by this one, but I TOTALLY agree with you on how the setting was such a unique form of hell. Glad you enjoyed it!