Synopsis: Afflicted with a mysterious disease after surviving an overdose, a woman returns to her childhood home to confront her demons but discovers a real one instead.
Stars: Jemima Rooper, Kate Dickie, Sarah Paul, Franc Ashman, Keith David Bartlett
Director: Ben Steiner
Running Length: 85 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: In horror films, sometimes it’s best to keep things as simple as possible. The more complicated things get, the harder your brain must work to decipher the pathways a wayward plot is traveling. If the way forward is straight ahead, you’re free to let all sorts of spooky things jump out at you while thinking less about how you’re getting to your destination. There’s a place for elevated horror, and then there are times when movies like Hulu’s Matriarch will do just fine. While writer/director Ben Steiner’s spin on a throwback folk horror is far from basic, its small cast, isolated setting, and short-run time keep it mighty focused and unburdened by outside forces.
With an organized life, professional wardrobe, and healthy appearance, advertising exec Laura (Jemima Rooper, What If) puts on a good show for her boss and the on-again, off-again relationship to which she is on the precipice of fully committing. In reality, she uses cocaine to keep up with the work, has a short temper with the tendency to lash out when cornered/challenged, and hides her bulimia from everyone. It all catches up with her after a tough stretch, and she dies from an overdose in her apartment. At least, that’s what it looks like to us.
With Laura lying on the floor of her bathroom unresponsive, a black substance appears from the next room and slowly creeps toward her…and inside her. Suddenly, she’s back, not different per se, but she recognizes a shift within. This revival coincides with her estranged mother, Celia (Kate Dickie, Prometheus), reaching out after two decades, urging her to return home. Laura hasn’t been back to the tiny country town since she fled its bad memories, but considering the current state of her life, she feels compelled to depart for this long-time coming reunion.
Upon her arrival, she finds the town as she remembers it; only the villagers don’t seem to have aged. Neither has her mother. The mother and daughter’s strained relationship is evident when Celia opens the door. While Celia appears willing to accommodate her daughter and accept her role in their past arguments, Laura doesn’t trust the woman standing before her, looking considerably younger than she should. What is happening in the town to her mother and the townspeople? And why does a familiar black substance ooze up from the ground…and out of others?
Developed through a partnership with 20th Digital Studio, which produces the Bite Size Halloween series for Hulu, Matriarch is the second film in October to be released via this teaming. The first, Grimcutty, felt like a cheap effort, but Matriarch’s higher quality makes it far easier to recommend. It’s ultimately precisely the story you think it is, but the film is helped along by Rooper and Dickie’s performances, both of which are very good. Dickie is entertaining to watch as a placating mum to Rooper’s petulant adult child, and while Steiner can’t maintain a grip on the narrative during the third act, his co-leads keep the film from coasting.
A word of caution, there are some disturbing images around eating disorders in Matriarch. While there is a message about support resources at the end of the film (after all the credits have run), it would be nice if Hulu put these messages earlier on. It’s telling that in a movie with graphic scenes of perverse nudity, the most hard-to-watch sequences are the starkly realistic ones surrounding body image issues.