It’s been four years since Ari Aster’s Hereditary and twice as long since Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, so we’re well past the point where it’s easy to take atmospheric horrors about grief, motherhood, and mental illness for granted. Already this year, I’ve seen Andrea Riseborough headline her own entry in that genre with Here Before and Sandra Oh do the same (to much lesser impact) in Umma. That’s why it’s difficult to get excited about the low-budget Irish indie You Are Not My Mother, which continues the trend with no flashy stars or gimmicks to set it apart with any freshness or novelty. Still, while You Are Not My Mother is far from the first (or best) Metaphor Horror about the ways mental illness can haunt multiple generations of a family, it is a solid one. It’s pure genre filmmaking in that way, and TV actor Carolyn Bracken does her best to keep up with the virtuosa mother-in-distress performances of Toni Collette and the like to make sure it meets the genre’s relatively high standards.
Boldly, this small-scale indie horror opens with a ritualistic baby burning, just so you know it’s not fucking around. That white-hot cold open is necessary to establish its genre boundaries, since the first act is essentially a domestic drama about hereditary mental illness, with no other clear signals that it’s a horror film. Three generations of depressed women occupy a small suburban home: a despondent grandmother (seen mysteriously burning a baby in the opener), her bed-sick daughter, and the granddaughter who can barely rouse those two caretakers for a simple ride to school. Things turn wicked when the typically reclusive mother disappears for days without warning, then returns a chipper, model parent with a newfound energy that does not feel true to her usual deflated self. The traditional horror markers ramp up from there, as the granddaughter confronts her mother’s sinisterly cheery imposter in the week leading up to Halloween, with the matriarch above them finally spilling her guts about why she burned that baby and who she failed to protect with the ritual.
The Halloween setting of the final act is more than just a horror mood-setter. You Are Not My Mother conveys a reverence for the Gaelic origins of Samhain unseen in the genre since 1982’s Halloween III: Season of the Witch. If it does anything to set itself apart from modern trends of Metaphor Horror about grief, mental illness, and motherhood, it’s in the way it retrofits that template into a folk horror tradition – drawing in faerie & changeling folklore to conjure a sense of Old-World dark magic. I suppose there’s also something novel about the film’s choice of POV, in which the mother-in-crisis is estranged as a monstrous Other, mostly seen through the terrified eyes of her freaked-out child. Otherwise, you know exactly what you’re going to get from a modern, slow-burn horror in this style at this point, so there’s nothing to really say about You Are Not My Mother‘s quality, except in comparison to other films of its ilk. In terms of new releases, it’s not as thrilling as Here Before but also not as dully generic as Umma; it’s middling.
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