After running over his young neighbor, Kurt hides the girl’s body in ever deeper depths while her ghost haunts him and her psychic mother begins noticing Kurt’s strange behavior. Giles Edwards interviews the unique crew of filmmakers (John Adams, Toby Poser, Zelda Adams)—a mom, a dad, and a daughter who share writing, directing and acting duties.
DIRECTED BY: Lorcan Finnegan
FEATURING: Imogen Poots, , Jonathan Aris
PLOT: A young couple visit a realtor’s office on a whim and find themselves trapped in an empty, endlessly repeating suburban hellscape.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: While the concept of suburban repetition has been explored before, Finnegan’s take on it is unceasingly unnerving. Its dark finale proceeds to relieve none of the tension built throughout the dispiriting ordeal.
COMMENTS: Contrary to some rumors I had heard being spread about Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg, it seems that their appearance in two back-to-back Fantasia films (see also The Art of Self-Defense) was mere coincidence. Poots sat down with director (and story-writer) Lorcan Finnegan and thought of Eisenberg as the male lead; the actor was immediately interested. I can see why, too: Vivarium is one of the creepiest and dystopian-est stories I’ve seen in. By the film’s end, I was experiencing what can be best described as “the jibblies”.
Gemma (Imogen), a kindergarten teacher, and her boyfriend Tom (Jesse Eisenberg), a groundskeeper doing odd-jobs at her school, have finally started to think about “settling down.” While a cookie-cutter house in the suburbs isn’t anything like what they want, they decide to have a laugh and follow Martin (an unreal Jonathan Aris), the creepy real estate agent, and visit housing unit number 9 in the new “Yonder” development; a subdivision with the tagline: “Quality homes. Forever.” After a brief tour, Martin disappears, and the couple is left baffled. Their attempts to leave are thwarted by the labyrinthine repetitiveness of the homes, and their car runs out of gas—conveniently, in front of their designated unit. Soon a parcel with food and supplies arrives. Soon after, a parcel with a live infant is left by their curb.
Vivarium opens with an ominous murder of one baby chick by another in the nest before nestling into a cutesy boy-and-girl story. The eccentric and over-eager realtor even makes the opening comedic. But hope collapses quickly as the story’s narrative rut takes over within the first ten minutes. The boy that shows up isn’t human—he reaches a physical age of 5 or 6 by “Day 94”, as marked by the couple on a door frame in their purgatorial domicile. His haunting voice is… modular. He’s given to mimicry, much like the real estate agent. And he screams whenever something does not go exactly according to routine. Tom is the first to break, attempting initially to starve the creature, then taking solace in an ever-deepening hole he’s digging in an attempt to escape. Gemma unwillingly becomes a mother figure to the creature, and seesaws between frustration at the situation and hope at discovering the reason behind their imprisonment.
I may be explaining my enthusiasm poorly here, but I am feeling an unearthly numbness at the moment. Lorcan Finnegan captures us along with the couple, and lets us grope blindly along with them. While there is something of a reveal in the final moments, it’s one of those that raises at least as many questions as it answers, with hints of extraterrestrial and theological oddness along the way. With its near-ceaseless malaise, mitigated only by the occasional flicker of human hope and kindness, Vivarium is like a shot of novocaine to the soul: it will put you under into a minty-green coma of unease.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
DIRECTED BY: John Adams, Toby Poser
FEATURING: John Adams, Toby Poser, Zelda Adams
PLOT: After running over his young neighbor, Kurt hides the girl’s body in ever deeper depths while her ghost haunts him and her psychic mother begins noticing Kurt’s strange behavior.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Deeper You Dig is an entertaining combination of endearing family dynamics and unsettling horror/possession atmospherics. It is a damn fine yarn spun with aplomb, but it’s more charming than weird.
COMMENTS: I don’t make a habit of staying up past midnight after a full evening of watching movies, but I emerged from the cinema with a spring in my step that contrasted considerably with the despairing sluggishness that had overcome me during the previous movie (the unfortunate Sadako, whose mini-review will be forthcoming). I also don’t make a habit of showering film-makers with unadulterated praise in the Q & A session, either, but frankly, after the satisfaction I received from watching The Deeper You Dig, it would have been almost dishonest of me not to.
On the eve of a snowstorm, a mother and daughter (Toby Poser and Zelda Adams—who are, incidentally, actually mother and daughter) have stocked up on provisions to hold them through the coming days. When mom goes off to work—bilking some neighbor with a psychic tarot reading act that’s more authentic than we’re initially led to believe—the daughter, Echo, decides to do some teenage rebellion in the form of nighttime sledding. Unfortunately, this brings her into the path of Kurt (John Adams), an aloof neighbor, who is distracted by some deer passing his truck on the road after a night out drinking. After hitting the girl, he panics and brings her body to a house he’s fixing up, then panics further when he finds she hasn’t died. On a desperate and destructive whim, he finishes her off, setting off a chain of occult misfortunes.
The Deeper You Dig begins its titular motif with Echo first being “buried” in a tub in an abandoned bathroom before being relocated to a shallow grave (the winter ground is hard), then to a deeper one. As her spatial descent begins, so does Kurt’s mental collapse. This clever hook, like much else in the movie, is executed well: the “Adams Family,” as they refer to themselves, know their tropes and technique. Filmed entirely in the Catskills (less than an hour from my stomping ground, coincidentally), they capture the watery chaos of last year’s wet winter beautifully. The abandoned house that Kurt’s repairing allows for plenty of truly neat-o camera shots, with one of my favorites being a recurring use of a window overlooking the property’s well. This screen within a screen portends actions of import, as well as a number of the grisly laughs to found throughout The Deeper You Dig.
Am I over-selling this? I doubt it. I know that I was in a rather depressed frame of mind after the big-budget, go-nowhere, God-what-is-wrong-with-you-people? blah boredom of Sadako, but I also know that I found The Deeper You Dig to be genuinely fun, appropriately creepy, and peopled by characters I actually cared about. (Big-budget J-Horror filmmakers, if you’re reading this, take note.) Having swung to a low I haven’t felt at Fantasia since Our House, this little family-horror picture from a genuine-actual family from the Catskills was nothing short of a revitalizing tonic.
You can also listen to our interview with the filmmakers.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: