At the risk of sounding like a weirdo, and let’s face it, when you’re talking about horror films that’s a tall order, I’ve got to admit that I’m really fascinated by pregnancy as a horror concept...
...Perhaps it’s a typical male curiosity for an unknowable bodily experience, but there’s always been this fascination and fear surrounding the idea of a living thing gestating inside of the human body. I can personally trace mine back to seeing Alien as a child. Pregnancy, as a concept, is ripe for body horror to be sure, but it’s also emotionally, sexually, and politically charged. It’s in this latter camp that The Perished writer/director Paddy Murphy lays his groundwork.
The Perished weaves a familiar tale of youthful dalliance, opening with college student Sarah (Courtney McKeon) and her boyfriend Shane (Fiach Kunz) having drunk sex in a friend’s car parked outside of a nightclub. Cut to seven weeks later and Sarah is taking up a tell-tale morning post over a porcelain toilet bowl. Both a home and doctor-administered test confirm the worst: she’s pregnant. Things only get worse when her deeply Irish Catholic mother discovers her situation and pulls her from bed by the hair, forcefully ejecting her from both her home and her life. Sarah hits rock bottom when Shane proposes the two take a break from their relationship before even learning of the pregnancy. Following a swift abortion, Sarah seeks succor at the ancestral country home of her gay friend Davet (Paul Fitzgerald).
Naturally, Davet’s house is a former home for “wayward” single girls that have found themselves in a family way. A fact casually administered by a local gas station attendant. It is here that the meat of the story should plump fully onto the bones built by the events thus far, but instead meander through a cycle of wailing, vaginal bleeding, wine drinking, and the persistent crying of babies with the reverb cranked, oh, just way up.
Davet proves to be the most stable presence in Sarah’s life and provides the audience with the most pleasure in terms of character work, but that may just be a matter of personal taste rather than performance. While the efforts turned in by all cast involved are worth noting, it can’t be overlooked that even the best among them left something to be desired.
But let’s move past performance for a moment and take a look at what the filmmakers are attempting, perhaps indelicately, to say. The film opens to statistical title cards, informing us of Ireland’s storied, if not altogether gruesome history of mishandling accidental or unwanted pregnancies with a clenched Catholic fist. Explicit conversations about consent, choice, paternal rights, and religious considerations are punched in at frequent intervals. The filmmakers make no mystery of their stance. It’s a worthy, rich, and highly political conversation that begs to be had through artistic medium. But it’s also a conversation worthy of careful execution.
Often, over its 90-minute run time, The Perished feels less like a story that developed around the conversation and more like a conversation being shoehorned into the hollowed out carcass of a story. When you look at films like The Ones Below, Rosemary’s Baby, or Inside you begin to see that the topic of pregnancy is genuinely fertile ground for a variety of stories told through the lens of horror. Dread and paranoia work just as well as gore and body horror. The horror can come from within just as easily as without. The Ones Below and Rosemary’s Baby work at building tension, tone, and paranoia but also work in showing us how vulnerable Rosemary is, what Kate wants for herself and her baby. The only thing we know that Sarah wants is to not be pregnant.
The Perished doesn’t trust its scripting, characters, or actors enough to let them carry the film. Movies live or die on at least one of those three components carrying the proceedings. In an ideal world the holy trinity elevates the whole project, but there must always be one. We’d like to root for Sarah, but she doesn’t root for herself. We’d like to revel in the horrifying details of the history of the house, but it’s grisly golden years are simply alluded to. We’d love to chew on a piercing and insightful line of dialogue long after we’ve left the theater (couch, seriously, stay at home) but everyone’s too busy wailing or sipping on wine or having an abortion. Every character is in their own world, and we only catch a glimpse when those worlds collide.
Where The Perished does carry things to term is its practical effects. Horrors creep about the homestead and offer the viewer a visual to pick over and savor on in this lean offering.
Overall this film feels like an earlier pass at something that will eventually bear fruit. There’s a story here. There’s a way to have the conversation that it’s clear Paddy Murphy wants to have through this film. There’s a way for Sarah to have her abortion cake and eat it too. The concept of haunted baby farms and shamed and stigmatized young pregnant women is a viable one. This bun needed a little more time in the oven, but I’m hoping that Murphy will return to pregnancy horror again. I’ll be keeping my eye out.
Witness the birth of The Perished when it arrives on VOD April 7th from The Horror Collective.
By Paul Bauer