DIRECTED BY: Richard Powell
WRITTEN BY: Richard Powell
STARRING: Robert Nolan, Astrida Auza, Cathryn Hostrich
PRODUCED BY: Zach Green
REVEIWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
John Dodd is having something of a crisis in his life. He’s in his 40s and feels that he is trapped in an unhappy existence which he cannot wait to break free from. His daughter Jordan is soon off to college but then there’s still his wife Charlotte, who means the best but cannot help being a nuisance and in increasingly hateful to John. Then she drops a bombshell; she is pregnant. The last thing John wants is the torture of having to help bring up a child and is desperate to avoid this happening. Looking on the internet, he discovers RU484, a steroid that can terminate pregnancy…………
I am going to admit something. I have not previously viewed any of the short films to come from Fatal Films, nor have I had the fortune to see the previous collaboration from producer Zach Green and writer/director Richard Powell, Worm, which a couple of minutes of research reveals it is thematically very similar to Familiar, which is their second outing. I intend to rectify this in the near future, but in the meantime we have Familiar, which is a quite stunning little combination of psychological domestic drama and body horror. I have watched several short films the last year in the course of being a writer for Horror Cult Films, but Familiar might very well be the best I have seen……so far.
Over somewhat tranquil but subtly sinister piano music, the movie opens with a narrator telling us how much better things are when people are asleep “but they always wake up”. There’s a strange beauty and poetry in what we are hearing for a minute or so, until this narrator introduces us to his wife and daughter in hateful terms, and we see them sitting at the kitchen table. The narrator, of course, is John, our protagonist, and it soon becomes clear that he has serious issues. He appears nice and caring to his family, but we are allowed to hear his inner thoughts, what he really feels, and they are not pleasant. I immediately found the situation incredibly compelling. John is a guy who many of us can probably relate to on some level, a man who is sick of his sterile life and wants to escape from it but doesn’t seem to know how. There are some uncomfortably familiar bits where John is seemingly ‘nice’, but his thoughts reveal what he is really feeling. How many of us have been somewhere, sat in a group or with someone, and said to ourselves things like “I cannot stand being here” or “I hate this person” , but of course cannot say these things out loud? I would warrant that a great many of us have, and this is one of the things that makes John so frightening yet so relatable.
Writer Richard Powell isn’t afraid to put in the odd line of dark humour, such as John saying to himself about his wife: “you’re on time baby, but so are my bowel movements”. It is not long though before our feelings about John become less and less sympathetic as he goes about stopping his wife’s pregnancy and it seems like his narration is more like his alter-ego, his dark side trying to spur him on. The final third of Familiar ventures into gruesome body horror that David Cronenberg fans, who may be a little disappointed with his more ‘restrained’ films of late, will embrace, but what makes it work so well is that it seems a natural progression of what has come before. In the externalisation of John’s feelings, I was reminded of my favourite Cronenberg film and the one I feel is his masterpiece, The Brood, which should give you some idea of how effective I thought it was! The special effects, which seem to avoid CG, are absolutely stunning and if you don’t know what you’re in for may really make you feel queasy. I won’t go into detail, but just think horrid bodily growths, a scalpel and something inside you.
The direction is a mini-master class in pacing and tension, relatively restrained but with occasional use of jarring cuts and sound effects. There is one superb scene where Charlotte tells John she is pregnant and we suddenly cut to a close-up of John’s eyes, shocked and horrified, after which we slowly pan out to his face. Hs says nothing, in fact there isn’t much actual dialogue in the film at all, but we don’t need it; the look on his face says it all. Robert Nolan’s performance is great in its restrained power, one of the best depictions of a nervous breakdown I have seen in a while, and by saying that I include feature-length movies. This is a truly first class production that works wonders with its tiny budget, and I hope that this team are able to move on to features; I think Familiar, certainly, would work expanded into a feature as its ideas and concerns would certainly withstand that. Familiar ends with the camera following a trail of blood into darkness, a perfect metaphor for this brief but extremely effective journey into the heart of darkness.