Most parents have the odd stressful moment when they jokingly wonder if they’re raising a devil’s spawn. Unfortunately for Andi Matichak, that notion seems neither humorous nor hyperbolic in “Son,” wherein the star of David Gordon Green’s “Halloween” reboot has a more “Rosemary’s Baby”-ish problem on her hands.
This latest, Heartland-set feature from Irish writer-director Ivan Kavanagh (“Never Grow Old”) echoes his prior horror exercise, 2014’s “The Canal,” in that it similarly means to keep us uncertain whether our protagonist is bedeviled by supernatural peril or delusional psychosis. But that line isn’t trod quite so nimbly this time, and the film suffers somewhat from striking an oddly earnest tone (despite some gory bits) without necessarily being very convincing, when it might better have gone for straight nerve-jangling suspense. It’s an intriguing, watchable but mixed bag that RLJE Films is releasing March 5 to available theaters, on demand and digital.
After a prologue in which a pregnant young woman fleeing pursuers ends up giving birth alone in a car, we meet Laura (Matichak) some years later. She’s a kindergarten teacher living quietly in a small town with 8-year-old son David (Luke David Blumm). One night she hears noises, and is horrified to see an entire group of people gathered ominously around his bed. By the time she’s run for help, however, they are gone, and the child (who doesn’t remember anything) is apparently unharmed. Local cops Steve (Cranston Johnson) and Paul (Emile Hirsch) are skeptical and sympathetic, respectively: There was no sign of forced entry, no strange fingerprints were found, and later they realize the young mother has been living under an assumed name, having survived a horrific past.
But Paul makes himself available to her when she fears further prowlers, then when David abruptly grows very ill. It is Paul she confides to in revealing that she’d escaped a cult, and fears it’s coming back to reclaim her and her son. Meanwhile, doctors are baffled by the boy’s seizures and severe gastrointestinal bleeding, whose cause they’re unable to determine. Yet just when that mystery condition seems terminal, he recovers — at least for a while.
However, this is just the beginning of Laura’s new woes, as she comes to believe “everybody is in on it” (including hospital staff), fleeing apparent pursuers once again. Mother and son drive to some of the bleaker corners of Kansas, Mississippi and elsewhere, alternately hiding and seeking out old friends, including ones played by Blaine Maye and Kristine Nielsen. Meanwhile, David’s illness generates some rather monstrous needs, and the two local cops shadowing them cross-country follow a trail of blood.
There are thematic elements here that might recall “The Omen” and “It’s Alive,” among other terror-is-a-child opuses. Kavanagh’s script has a distinctive-enough narrative course to avoid seeming overly indebted to such predecessors. But despite a fair degree of visual atmosphere in location choices, Piers McGrail’s cinematography and the increasingly decrepit interiors of John Leslie’s production design, “Son” never quite binds its tricky, episodic story into a persuasive or gripping whole.
Matichak gives a strong performance, as does juvenile Blumm. Yet in placing a mother’s love as the central drive here, the film puts too little emphasis on the question of whether there was ever a “cult” at all — or if Laura is instead the permanently traumatized survivor of very different abuse she’s memory-repressed all these years. Key as it is, that issue ought to generate more tension throughout than it does. Another problem is that as written and/or played, Hirsch’s role seems rather thankless, undercutting the impact of its ultimate importance.
“Son” is twisty, violent, well-crafted and cast enough to easily hold viewer attention. At the same time, a story this baroque, involving a child possibly “fathered” by a literal demon, ought to make a stronger overall impression than Kavanagh’s poker-faced yet uneven treatment manages. He’s made a horror movie that isn’t terribly scary because it plays more like a drama, and isn’t terribly powerful as a drama because the central conflicts aren’t fully convincing — while the doubt that ought to heighten their complexity is inexpertly woven into the storytelling. “Son” is a cut above genre average, but it frustrates in that its skillful and serious-minded aspects do not finally lift it any higher than that moderate level of success.