Anyone who’s looked to buy or rent a property in recent years is sure to have at least one horror story to tell – a particularly dodgy estate agent, perhaps, or a narrow escape from a certain scam. It’s unlikely that even the most unfortunate house hunter, however, will have been led into a dystopian housing estate from which there is seemingly no escape and forced to raise a demonic child hell bent on causing as much despair as possible.
But that’s the fate that awaits Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) in Vivarium, the unsettling new film from Irish filmmaker Lorcan Finnegan which takes aim at the Irish housing crisis and skewers the “settle down to have children in suburbia” lifestyle, creating an eerie and unnerving slice of horror that would make even the most disastrous flat viewing seem like a tropical holiday.
The premise is relatively simple: a young couple is desperately searching for a new home, and their hunt leads them to the offices of an estate agent (Jonathan Aris) whose rather creepy demeanor, it must be said, immediately sets alarm bells ringing. Such is the desperation of their situation that they figure it’s at least worth a look at the property he wishes to show them. What’s the worst that could happen, after all?
And so the agent leads them in his car to a large, newly-built estate made up of hundreds of identical, faux-idyllic green homes – the sort which have a soulless, sanitised quality to them that creates an undeniable feeling of uneasiness, not helped by the presence of cotton wool-esque, unlifelike clouds which loom ominously overhead.
What follows is a claustrophobic and stressful watch that might not offer the light relief that some self-isolators are after in the age of quarantine, but which is undoubtedly a masterclass in building dread. As Gemma and Tom attempt to leave the estate, they find themselves unable to navigate their way out, repeatedly arriving back at the house they had just viewed, no matter which route they take.
Eventually they are forced to accept they have no choice but to stay in the house, and soon find a package in the front garden, containing a baby and a note which informs them that raising the child is the only escape from their predicament. Naturally, this child is no normal infant – it grows at an alarming rate, has a terrifying stare, and speaks in an unusual, unnerving metre, often impersonating Tom and Gemma. In short, this is not going to be an easy way out for the increasingly exasperated couple.
The illogical, labyrinthian layout of the estate invokes haunted house narratives such as Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House – but it’s a very different kind of haunting going on here. Whereas the terror in most haunted house stories derives from the building’s history, the past lives and ghosts which continue to spook the area, in Vivarium the opposite is true: what makes this situation so terrifying is how unlived in, how untouched by human presence, this estate is – the fear is not of ghosts, but of something more alien. This alien theory is furthered by the presence of the child – who is referred to only as “it” by Tom and whose main source of entertainment comes from watching bizarre, otherworldly cartoons on the TV.
The film is helped immeasurably by its tremendously unsettling production design and by an ominous score – although that score is not overused. The film also makes good use of silence at times, and no sound is more central to its atmosphere than the all-too-frequent, painfully piercing scream of the fiendish child.
The performances are magnificent – with Poots in particular excelling as a woman slowly driven to despair while desperately trying to cling to some form of hope. Senan Jennings, meanwhile, is a worthy addition to the vast cinematic canon of creepy kids. There’s also several standout scenes, including one in which a rare moment of joy between Tom and Gemma, as they dance in front of the light of their car, is interrupted by the malevolent child, and a particularly intriguing sequence at the film’s conclusion which it’s best I don’t spoil here.
If there’s a downside it’s that despite the relatively short run-time the middle section occasionally begins to drag – there’s a repetition to scenes of the child causing havoc with his constant screams and imitations, and although this is undoubtedly an attempt to further the atmosphere of hopeless anxiety it does threaten to become overindulgent.
That minor gripe aside, however, Vivarium is the latest entry in a long tradition of films exposing the darker side of suburbia – think the work of David Lynch, and Sam Mendes’ directorial debut American Beauty – and is a welcome addition to the genre. It doesn’t always offer easy answers, and it certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea – but as a piece of mood-driven dystopian fiction it’s well worth a watch.