UK Release Date – To be confirmed
While a South African horror film might sound like a refreshing idea, it’s soon apparent here that the usual tropes are still going strong outside of the typical American productions. Darrell Roodt’s The Lullaby is a feature that starts off with a lot of promise by including some local history and the idea of folk tales entering present day events. Eden Rock in 1901 is depicted as a brutal place inhabited by barbaric British troops and violent religious zealots. But outside this shock opening the story jumps into all the familiar places we’ve been to many times before. While there are some intriguing thematic ideas at play occasionally this is yet another tale of spooky goings on, strange figures cloaked in black, and blood filled hallucinations.
Chloe (Reine Swart) is a troubled girl who after running away from home returns to her mother Ruby (Thandi Puren) in the late stages of pregnancy. After a traumatic birth Chloe finds herself feeling empty inside and struggles with the day to day routine of being a new mother. While her own mum tries to help in some ways there’s clearly a bad history between them linked to old tragedies and past feuds. Just as the new baby’s father isn’t around, neither is Ruby’s husband. This idea of absent fathers, struggling mothers and problem children is an interesting motif that should really strengthen the rest of the drama even before it turns into a horror movie.
The film itself is a grey, moody experience. There’s an aura of death surrounding everything everything from the bleak, shadowy old houses the characters inhabit to the bedraggled, pale look of the people themselves. It moves slowly and dialogue is often delivered in ways that feel distance and distracted — when they’re not just screeching at horrible visions or at each other. Everyone seems to be carrying a lot of emotional baggage. Instead of enjoying a family reunion or moving forward to a new chapter in life after a few past mistakes there’s a sense that old wounds are very much open.
However there’s a lack of focus and it’s not clear what goal the film makers had in mind when trying to tell this story. The links to the events in 1901 are often tenuous, and the family melodrama is often quite separate from the more grisly sequences and all the crazy visions Chloe begins to see. It has far less to say that it initially seems, which is a big shame after several promising hooks early on. It quickly becomes apparent that there will be more of a focus on throwing in all the clichés rather than forwarding the narrative.
All the classics are here. Spooky noises in old hoses at night, bad jump scares, weird static sounds from baby monitors. Chloe is shown wailing as time slows down and Dutch angles appear. Ruby even has an old CRT television at home so a Poltergeist style apparition can appear occasionally. Whatever sort of imaginative beginnings this tale had early on it’s all thrown out in favour of convenient dreams and plinky-plonky music box tunes. One of the best dramatic flashbacks is undermined entirely when it becomes obvious that it exists just to add creepy porcelain dolls to the proceedings. There are some genuinely grotesque shock moments peppered throughout, but most of them are just weird nightmares involving the newborn baby that start to feel cheap after a while.
The family psychologist Dr. Reed (Brandon Auret) initially appears to be a sinister figure who collects hundreds of butterflies in his spooky mansion, but he ends up just being another exposition delivery device like the experts they drag out in so many other supernatural noise fests these days. This is a repetitive problem the story has — building up interesting ideas and then spoiling them for the sake of the expected scares and gore. Sympathetic characters are twisted at the last moment for the sake of violence, real drama is thrown out in favour of Chloe running about soaked in blood, and potential themes and subtexts are left aside so they can rush to a silly ending.
There may have been a thought provoking story here, a tale of unwanted pregnancy, child abuse and post natal depression. Instead I’m afraid it never follows through on the seeds of even the simplest idea after Ruby suggests ‘motherhood is hard…’. But there are no real attempts at symbolism here. If you’re really into those films that feature scary white faced ghouls wearing black or the idea of people maybe-maybe-not losing their marbles you could find some enjoyment here. But everyone else is probably bored by this bland, played out style of horror already.