REUNION *** New Zealand 2020 Dir: Jake Mahaffy. 95 mins
The Horror of real life is often as heinous as that conjured up by any vampire, spree killer, rampaging zombie or ghost. Jake Mahaffy’s 2020 film REUNION offers the viewer a world of grief, mental illness, secrets and the horror of old age. The theme of child rearing is strong as it plays on vulnerabilities, and an intense desire to protect your child. As if that were not enough, a spectre, albeit a benign one, of a murdered adopted sister is added to the bleak mix.
The picture opens with pregnant Ellie (Emma Draper), as she reunites with her estranged mother Ivy (Julia Ormond) in her childhood home. Their relationship is not a nurturing one: Ellie seems reluctant to accept help from her mother. Elle is visibly offended when her mother she tries to touch her. Given that domestic violence from Elle’s husband is mentioned, this makes her upset all the more feasible. She has a bruised left eye, likely from a punch by said husband, who remains unseen.
Elle has returned to her home for help and like some real victims of violence, has no place to go but home. This home seems to be anything but helpful for convalescence. The house itself is a monstrous wood structure built in a mansion style. Ellie’s mother is in the process of moving, gathering items into organized, labeled boxes. The move is more than it appears as Ellie will often observe her mother burning items in a large fire barrel. Ellie’s mother keeps the interior doors locked at all times, as if trying to keep out memories of organized boxes heaped in rooms.
The oppressive surroundings work evil magic in a William Hope Hodgson way as Ellie finds herself plagued with unpleasant visions of her late sister Cara (Ava Keane). The sister adopted by her parents in their characteristically non tender way is seen in flashback. The house forces Ellie to confront some inner demons, and distorted past memories, particularly of her sister’s death. The key element of the film is a section of a broken glass vase that Elle has retained (further revelation of the significance would be a spoiler).
REUNION (2020) is a slow burn ghost story, and features an ongoing sense of dread rather than massive jump scares. The horror is of the past and how it can warp people and in Ellie’s mother and her now severely aged father. The father is revealed in flashbacks as a stern, almost puritanical master of his home. He is now a gibbering, vindictive man who has to be helped in and out of bed, spending his days in his wheel chair near a sunlit window. He often is seen crawling on the floor, scratching at a wall of which the significance will come later in the film. He shows signs of life only when hears a recording of Cara playing piano.
REUNION (2020) has some good practical effects, including a sequence involving a clothes hamper.
Director Jake Mahaffy, who also co-wrote the script with Tim Van Dammen, works well with the small cast of people. Julia Ormond is solid as Ellie’s mother with a mix of an air of parental authority and the frantic hiding of the past to protect her daughter. Ormond does well in the flashback moments as she appears younger, vibrant and subservient to the patriarchal husband Jack (John Bach).
Driving it all is Ellie and her relationship with her parents, and Emma Draper plays confusion brilliantly. Draper acts well with the eyes and can “Act still;” a hard feat to manage to effect. She is a victim of abuse on many levels, and all she seeks is a moment of peace without regret. She strikes up a date with an old boyfriend Gus (Cohen Holloway) who is also in the home as a carpenter helping to restore the wood. Their moments on camera even get a smile from Ellie, breaking the oppressive atmosphere.
John Bach as Ellie’s father transforms himself from a stern, younger, purposeful driven man with a secret to a babbling bed ridden father figure complete with a dry voice and gnarly hands. Bach does this very subtly with the aid of minimal makeup.
REUNION (2020) features good use of the giant wooden mansion and claustrophobic atmosphere. The editing at times relies on the quick cut and hand held work to show ominous moments of revelation. This is teamed with a low, droning score that adds melancholy to the film.
REUNION (2020) is a slow and ominous look at family life and death that may not work for all genre fans. If you enjoy solid acting and an atmosphere of the unexpected then this picture will delight your palette for horror like a five hundred page book.
Review by Terry Sherwood