This Halloween season has been booming for Walt Disney’s other streaming services, Hulu. Earlier this month, Hulu successfully rebooted the long-suffering Hellraiser franchise with a strong reboot effort. On the other end of the quality spectrum, the Internet PSA doubling as a movie, Grimcutty, hasn’t impressed critics. This past Friday Hulu released British folk horror Matriarch to a much better critical response. Its story of an extremely toxic mother-and-daughter relationship promises to tap into some Wicker Man vibes.
Laura is a successful and driven professional with few friends and relationships that barely extend beyond casual. After she survives a near deadly overdose, a prophetic nightmare compels Laura to return to the small British village where she grew up. She hasn’t been home in years in no small part due to the estranged relationship with her mother. As a child, Laura never knew her father. And her mother, Celia, was cold and harsh. Now her mother claims she’s dying but increasingly strange events in the small village convince Laura that something very wrong is going on.
Matriarch Embraces Folk Horror Roots and Plenty of Ambitious Ideas
Matriarch immediately embraces its folk horror roots in its opening scene. Writer and director Ben Steiner’s camera quietly follows a lone man as he submerges himself into a bog before the credits roll. Subsequently, Matriarch jumps to an urban setting where we find Laura, a driven professional, whose life has pretty much already unraveled as Steiner introduces us to her lonely, drug-fueled existence. Steiner films her near fatal overdose in surrealist nightmare fashion similar to the prologue. As Matriarch travels to its small village setting, Steiner focuses more on Laura’s strange interactions with the villagers and terse interactions to build atmosphere. Eerie happenings and Laura’s increasingly illness serve in place of direct scares.
However, Steiner’s guilty of not pushing the story forward for significant chunks of time.
While its tone and central mystery engage for much of the movie’s runtime, Matriarch arguably let’s its story dangle just out of the audience’s reach for a bit too long. Of course, this isn’t to suggest that Steiner needed to tell us more sooner. On the contrary, Matriarch’s finale aptly balances exposition with just enough ambiguity. However, Steiner’s guilty of not pushing the story forward for significant chunks of time. The atmosphere here is good, but it’s not enough to sustain the movie on its own. Moreover, Steiner introduces several characters and ideas as subplots that only somewhat factor into the conclusion. It feels like a lot of ideas
Matriarch Leaves Too Much for an Abrupt Finale
Eventually Steiner’s slow burn gives way to a finale that boasts some impressively creepy imagery. That is, quiet folk horror abruptly shifts to bizarre pagan rituals and some grotesque horror. Maybe some of the horror imagery exceeds Matriarch’s grasp. But it’s hard not to appreciate Steiner’s ambition and inventiveness. If there’s a complaint here, it’s that Matriarch saved a little too much for its final moments. The end result can’t feel a bit rushed. To a large extent, the story and its mysteries come together though not always in a satisfying way.
Unfortunately, Steiner often distracts from his own central theme with too many ideas particularly the actual mechanics of the pagan rituals that take center stage in the finale.
Beneath the surface of its oozing black goo and misty marshes, Matriarch – at its title implies – is about toxic familial relationships and the lasting trauma they leave on us. Unfortunately, Steiner often distracts from his own central theme with too many ideas particularly the actual mechanics of the pagan rituals that take center stage in the finale. Both lead performances, however, ensure the mother-daughter relationship ultimately takes precedent. North American audiences likely won’t recognize Jemima Rooper but, as the troubled Laura, she delivers a complex, strong performance. Not surprisingly, Kate Dickie (Game of Thrones, Raven’s Hollow, The Witch, The Green Knight) steals each scene she’s in.
Matriarch Lacks Overt Scares, But Scores Plenty of Atmosphere
Matriarch represents an ambitious effort from Steiner and the overall result is a hit and miss example of British folk horror. Both lead performances are excellent. There’s also a compelling mystery driving the story that holds your attention right to the finale. Even when the effects outreach the movie’s grasp, the creativity behind the images still impresses. But Matriarch takes too long to reach its destination. And Steiner dangles too many subplots and characters. Bits of the story are convoluted and the bigger themes around toxic family relationships may not fully land. While it’s a mostly satisfying entry to the folk horror subgenre, Matriarch will likely have limited appeal.