Vivarium is a horror story with many layers, indirect social commentary buried deep in a grim, kinky fantasy. In introducing this, his second feature production, Director Lorcan Finnegan acknowledged in interview that consumerism is being satirised in the film, but in a way that is veiled and indirect almost to the point of being imperceptible, keeping the focus on the bizarre but oddly fascinating plotline.
The film begins with a straightforward situation: young couple Gemma and Tom (Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg) are hoping to purchase a house. Their search takes a weird and sinister turn when they meet with a new estate agent—played with marvellously ingenious, spot-on creepiness by Jonathan Aris—who takes them to Yonder, a newly built suburban enclave. The neighbourhood, promoted as safe, secluded, and well planned, is created along the same lines as other superficially perfect fictional communities, from the comically wholesome town in Pleasantville, to the more sinister examples in The Stepford Wives or The Truman Show; but Yonder goes further. It is a purposely farfetched parody of a planned suburban neighbourhood, with rows of identical houses as far as the eye can see. The young couple intends to simply take a look at the house, but when the agent abandons them unexpectedly, things quickly take a strange and frightening turn and they find themselves in the most outlandish and inexplicable of traps.
The film announces its intentions from the beginning, first with its title—a vivarium being an animal’s enclosure meant to roughly replicate its natural habitat—and then with an extended initial scene involving a cuckoo invading the nest of another species, setting up the premise clearly, even a bit too conspicuously, before the opening credits are finished. There is an obvious similarity to Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos, adapted (in 1960, and again in 1995 by John Carpenter) as the film Village of the Damned, although Vivarium takes a different, less horror-conventional direction.
The film owes a great deal to its set design. The grating perfection of Yonder, with its perpetually trimmed lawns and houses in the same pastel green shade, give the subtle message that something is not quite right at first glimpse; aerial views of the street design first introduce the idea of a trap with a wonderful sense of foreboding. Even the sky, with its unnaturally symmetrical arrangement of perfect white clouds, suggests that we are looking at something artificial; while the appearance of food and supplies, by means of what seem to be unmarked Amazon packages on the front porch, are a subtly disturbing parody of the normal. By such grotesque, quasi-normal means, the couple are given a single duty, one which grows more oppressive as time goes on, and reveals small, unsatisfying hints of the reason for their predicament. The final act provides some explanation, by means of a wild, hallucinatory passage worthy of David Lynch, and a truly dark and pessimistic conclusion.
While a good creative effort based on an interesting concept, the quality of Vivarium is mixed. The acting is good throughout, and the production design both moves the story along and adds to the chilling mood. At the same time, the horror of the scenario, which depends on the main characters’ plight and their emotional breakdown in reaction to it, is admittedly challenging; while handled creatively and well, it is not always fully developed, the characters’ actions not always clearly explained, and the action occasionally gets choppy. In general, though, the film manages to sustain suspense, keeping the source of menace vague and amorphous yet constantly present. Most effective of all, and the real making of the film, is the contrast between the outwardly ordinary and banal, and the alien and dangerous aspects just below the surface of virtually everything.
Following its world premiere at Cannes and a tour of international film festivals, Vivarium is being made available simultaneously in cinemas and online.