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In one of the creepiest episodes of the vintage American TV series The Twilight Zone, residents of the apparently idyllic Peaksville find themselves cut off from the rest of the world, terrorised by the petulant yet godlike mind of a small child. Adapted from a story by Jerome Bixby, the episode (ironically entitled It’s a Good Life) struck a chilling chord with audiences in 1961, watching from behind their picket fences, mesmerised by its darkly comic vision of a world in which failing to think happy thoughts was punishable by death, or worse.
You can see a trace of It’s a Good Life (which has continued to resonate through popular culture) in Vivarium, the second feature from director Lorcan Finnegan and writer Garret Shanley, a paranoid fable in which the aspiration of acquiring a dream home turns into an increasingly surreal nightmare of imprisonment. Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots (who recently co-starred in Riley Stearns’s The Art of Self Defense) are Tom and Gemma, the young couple searching for a place of their own. She’s a teacher, he’s a tree surgeon; together, they have been urged to get on the property ladder. But finding the perfect place is proving tricky.
When they meet creepy estate agent Martin, whose awkward unearthly smile wouldn’t look out of place in a David Lynch remake of Galaxy Quest, the couple’s instinct is to bolt. Instead (presumably driven by their desperation to become homeowners) they follow Martin to Yonder, a Stepford-style development outside the city (“near enough, and far enough – just the right distance”). Here, they promptly become trapped in a maze of little boxes – endlessly reproduced rows of identical houses, all the same shade of sickly green, all with the same surgical strip of grass out front. And all eerily empty…
The title Vivarium (a container for observing small animals in a re-creation of their natural environment) provides a signpost for where this is going. Suffice to say that Tom and Gemma find themselves in a pastel-coloured simulacrum of suburban hell, raising a monstrous child whose arrival is prefigured by a horrifying opening sequence of a cuckoo invading a nest, screaming to be fed by its bewildered surrogate mother. “That’s nature,” Gemma tells one of her young charges, “that’s just the way things are,” adding forlornly that “it’s only horrible sometimes”.
As with all such Twilight Zone-style fantasies, it’s the details we recognise that make the unimaginable seem immediate. While Yonder looks less like a set from The Truman Show than an infernal version of Teletubbyland (the digital landscapes and barrage-balloon clouds are appropriately artificial), the gradual disintegration of our central couple remains skin-crawlingly close to home. From their initial in-car bickering about who gets to drive (“Give me a go,” “What are you, six?”) to their chippy despair as entrapment sinks in, Tom and Gemma’s relationship fractures along all too familiar lines. One minute they’re happy-go-lucky young lovers, looking forward to a life filled with possibilities; the next, they’re terrified, exhausted wrecks, held hostage by the shrieking demands of an alien child who mimics their every word and gesture, living in a dream-world neither of them wanted, each blaming the other for their predicament.
In his director statement, Finnegan (who reportedly drew tonal inspiration from Hiroshi Teshigahara’s 1964 classic Woman in the Dunes) describes Vivarium as addressing the “fantasy version of reality that we strive towards” in world where “consumerism is consuming us”, and in which the promise of ideal living is “the bait that leads many into a trap”’. There’s an element of Cronenbergian revulsion in the tasteless, plasticated food parcels that keep Tom and Gemma alive, while the echoes of horror movies – from Village of the Damned to Poltergeist – increase as the satire turns ever more sinister. Yet even in its most overtly chilling moments (a third-act descent into hell recalls a memorably hallucinogenic sequence from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil), Vivarium keeps its tongue placed firmly in its cheek, reminding me somewhat of the absurdist, smiling tone of Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe’s recent picket-fence parody Greener Grass.
You can see the seeds of Vivarium in the ghost estates of Finnegan and Shanley’s chilling 2012 short Foxes, and there are times this feels like a single idea stretched to feature length. But there’s enough visual and thematic invention to keep viewers gripped and unsettled, particularly in these unprecedented, isolated times.
Vivarium is available to stream on all major platforms
Source: The Guardian
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