Yet another unconventional horror story with a deeply buried message, Little Joe is distinctly unusual in style, narrative, theme, and prevailing mood. Award-winning Austrian director and screenwriter Jessica Hausner has referred to Frankenstein being an inspiration for the script, mentioning the essential elements of the manmade monster freeing itself and wreaking havoc. Hausner also had Invasion of the Body Snatchers in mind, not as a remake but as a reimagining with comic elements as well as horror. She initially had the idea of giving a Body Snatchers theme a happy ending of sorts, rather than a completely dystopian one, and it could be argued she’s succeeded to the extent that is possible. In the director’s view, the central horror theme is related to ordinary matters, such as the demands of work and parenthood. Hausner’s unique approach sometimes works well, sometimes less so, but it is always strikingly original.
Alice Woodward (Emily Beecham) is a scientist; her genetic engineering laboratory has developed a plant which, through its scent, produces a mood-elevating effect. Alice sneaks a plant home to give to her son Joe, rather significantly naming the plant Little Joe. The plant was bred to be sterile, but unexpectedly begins producing pollen, leading to discussions about suspect or unreliable methods of genetic engineering. As with many horror films about science-produced threats, one idealistic lab worker warns of the danger, continuing to denounce the plant’s development, her warnings a bit hysterical and largely ignored, and quickly becoming part of workplace background. Meanwhile, the bulk of the action involves Alice’s personal struggles. She loves her work but feels it takes time and attention from her son; she cares for her son but feels guilty over also regarding him as a burden and a distraction. She simultaneously resents her ex-husband’s time with Joe and appreciates the break from parenthood it provides. She is deeply ambivalent about starting a relationship with a colleague (Ben Whishaw). Alice sees a therapist, and her sessions act as a useful barometer not only of what she is thinking, but of how willing she is to be honest, and why. Into this mix of personal issues, concerns about the laboratory’s safety and about possible unexpected effects begin to creep, at an incredibly slow pace that places the predictable elements, the recognition of danger and decision to take action, in an almost secondary position.
The approach taken to this material is unusual for a supposed horror story. The actual horror is, for almost the entire film, so understated as to be virtually absent. While something is amiss in Alice’s life, the script allows it to be equally likely that the problem is the real effects of the newly developed plant, or Alice’s stress over balancing work and motherhood. Every new and suspicious event is given a plausible, harmless explanation, keeping the idea of a threat tightly suppressed until the last. The audience is left genuinely uncertain which suspicions are actually valid, which are mere paranoia, and which are deflections from unrelated problems. It is a brand of horror which is completely devoid of shocks or “jump” scares, which even tempers fright with mild comedy or contemplation, but which takes its own path entirely.
More impressive than the script is the way the story is presented, the audio and visual choices. Hausner employed respected film score composer Teiji Ito to produce a highly effective soundtrack, which uses a style of music traditionally used at Shinto rituals. Consisting of drums and woodwinds, it sounds formal and faintly eerie; Hausner explained that she likes the “slightly offbeat,” and even awkward or discordant, sound and the feeling of uncertainty it produces during many scenes. It creates, she commented, the feeling of a world which doesn’t entirely make sense. Equally effective is the use of occasionally “jumpy” camera work which tries to give the same incoherent effect. The cameraman was at times instructed to keep the camera stationary, even when the actors moved partially or totally offscreen. It provides the perfect sense of mystery and of things being out of control which is called for in key scenes. One aspect of the film that captures the viewer’s attention immediately, the deliberately odd use of colour in set design, contrasting the pervasive dull green of the staff uniforms and equipment with the deep red of the rows of plants, gives laboratory shots just the right mood of mystery and unreality. In fact, it is the look and sound that is the essence of this film, rather than the plot.