There are few moments quite as exhilarating as watching a film from a relatively new director that is so well crafted that you cannot wait to see what they bring us next. To be clear, writer/director Ivan Kavanagh (The Canal, Never Grow Old) may not exactly qualify as a new director, but he’s new to me, so I’ll take it. And his latest work. Son is one of the better horror films I’ve seen in 2021, with a combination of more traditional scare tactics blended with a family drama centering on the protective nature of a mother for her child with…issues.
Andi Matichak (from the most recent Halloween movie and the two upcoming ones) plays Laura, a woman raised in a cult who opens the film very pregnant, presumably running away from said cult and ultimately giving birth in the car she’s using to facilitate her escape. The film then jumps ahead enough years to allow her son David (Luke David Blumm) to be about 10 years old, the two living a simple life in a small town. One night, Laura hears a strange noise in their house and opens her son’s bedroom door to find a group of people in his room hovering over the boy. She runs screaming from the house, and by the time the police arrive, the supposed invaders are gone and there is not a sign they or anyone was there. The investigating officer, Paul (Emile Hirsch), is willing to indulge Laura’s version of the story but without signs of any wrong-doing, it’s hard for him to do much.
But days later, David falls into convulsive fits, coughs up blood and has what appears to be hemorrhaging under his skin. The doctors are at a loss to explain to Laura what is happening to him, telling her to prepare for the worst. But as suddenly as his ailment strikes, it seems to vanish, and David is healthy again. Laura is convinced that the cult members in her son’s room made him sick somehow, and she’s determined to mine her memories for clues as to where those people are now so she can find out what happened to him. The urgency of her discovery is increased when David gets sick again a couple days after being released from the hospital.
Son keeps open the very real possibility that a great many of Laura’s tortured memories are not real. She spent many years in a mental hospital as a younger person, and sometimes has trouble remembering specifics. But at a certain point it becomes clear not only what is happening to her son but what needs to be done to temporarily make him better. And the time between his episodes shrinks with time.
The reason Son works so incredibly well is the combination of strong performances from the three leads, especially Matichak, who is so beautifully convincing as the protective mother who puts her son’s well being above all else. What she does to protect him isn’t always right (it’s borderline criminal at times), but it’s utterly believable and heartbreaking. At one point, she makes the decision that she must stop helping her son before things get out of hand, and she tells him this with such agonizing emotion that I almost burst out crying.
As a horror movie, the film also soars thanks to filmmaker Kavanagh building up dread and thick layers of dank atmosphere (not to mention buckets of blood and other gore). The few times he resorts to more traditional jump scares, it feels unnecessary and even a little gimmicky, but those moments are few and far between, and his ability to create the perfect eerie backdrop for this story is exceptional. Son works on both a visceral and psychological level, almost equally well. Its ability to scare is clear, but more than that, it masterfully draws you into its characters and their tragic, paranoid, and grotesque circumstances.
The film is now streaming on Shudder.
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