Ivan Kavanagh writes & directs an uneven but chilling story about a woman who goes to unspeakable lengths to keep her sick child alive.
Son suffers from its own ubiquitousness. It’s part of a timely revival in cult horror. It’s at least the third horror film in the past several months in which someone is forced to kill for a loved one. Right out of the gate, writer/director Ivan Kavanagh is challenged with having to set his film apart from the rest of the pack and mostly succeeds, thanks largely to excellent performances from his cast.
Laura (Andi Matichak) is a survivor of sexual trauma, and a cult escapee, now living quietly with her young son, David (Luke David Blumm), while struggling with occasional flashbacks of her horrifying past. In the middle of the night, David is nearly kidnapped by a group of strangers but left behind after Laura runs for help. Though he seems unharmed by the experience initially, David soon falls mysteriously ill, vomiting blood and suffering from seizures and agonizing skin sores. He’s hospitalized, but tests turn up nothing unusual, and there’s no way to treat him.
With no family to speak of, and David’s doctors eyeing her suspiciously, Laura has almost no one in her corner, save for Paul (Emile Hirsch), the detective investigating the attempted kidnapping, who almost immediately becomes attached to her (as opposed to his partner, who’s inexplicably hostile towards her from the moment they meet). Paul may be the only person Laura can trust when it appears that David’s kidnappers, whom Laura believes to be members of the cult she escaped, return for another try, forcing her to leave the hospital with a still gravely ill David in her arms.
The good news is that this leads to the discovery of a miracle cure for David’s mystery illness. The bad news is that it’s human flesh.
From what we can piece together of Laura’s flashbacks and nightmares, David is a half-breed, born of an unholy union forced upon Laura, but whom she came to love as any mother would. Now, with Paul hot on their heels and desperate to help them, she and David are on the run, leaving a gruesome trail behind them.
I initially described Son as cult horror, but that’s not entirely accurate. The cult aspects are, really, very minor, and it’s even implied that Laura may be imagining that part of her past, to help cope with the trauma of sexual assault. It’s more similar to the recent My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To, which also focuses on someone forced to kill in order to keep a family member, one they both love and fear, alive. Both tap into the feeling of isolation, and being trapped by both affection and familial responsibility. The characters assist in the feeding of their afflicted loved ones not just because they care about them, but because leaving them to do it on their own would be so much worse.
Making matters worse for Laura is that, other than Paul and a friendly neighbor, very nearly everyone she encounters treats her with distaste as if she’s somehow responsible for the abuse she suffered. It’s exactly what people who survive sexual abuse think they’ll be treated like if it’s found out, and why we don’t talk about it nearly as much as we should. Kavanagh treats the subject with knowledge and sensitivity, and a refreshing lack of luridness.
Right out of the gate, writer/director Ivan Kavanagh is challenged with having to set his film apart from the rest of the pack, and mostly succeeds.
Though it does somewhat pay off in the end, the reality of sexual abuse makes the spooky Satanic cult angle almost superfluous. Much of it feels underwritten and mostly relies on the typical tropes of cult horror, such as cryptic Blair Witch-esque symbols, and creepy people skulking around in groups. It feels as if Kavanagh didn’t think he had enough with the core story, and added the cult aspect in as an afterthought.
Andi Matichak, who appeared as Jamie Lee Curtis’ granddaughter in the 2018 reboot of Halloween (and in its upcoming sequel Halloween Kills) is excellent as Laura. She’s a broken young woman trying to maintain a sense of normalcy for her son, but when the kidnappers show up at her house, she doesn’t seem terribly surprised. It’s perhaps inevitable that the ghosts that have haunted her would be made flesh eventually.
There’s also a fierceness to her, though, even an undercurrent of something dangerous. You 100% percent buy that she really would do anything for her son, and, like Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, the idea of that, if you’re a parent yourself, is both horrifying and, perhaps more unsettlingly, understandable.
Son premieres on Shudder July 8th.