Religion and folk horror go together like peas and carrots. So much folk horror is about oppression and belief that religion is the most natural place to go. Dan Slater’s The Family, a new Canadian entry in the genre, explores how religions can be weaponized against someone and explore how much abuse people can take before their breaking point.
Set on an isolated farm, Caleb (Benjamin Charles Watson) lives with his brother Elijah (Onyx Spark) and sister Abigail (Jenna Warren), all of whom live under the watchful and oppressive eye of their Mother (Toni Ellwand) and Father (Nigel Bennett). Mother and Father are devout followers of a Christianity-like religion in which their diety Etan is always watching and holding off the onslaught of the demon Abbadon. The entire farm is surrounded by a threshold, a ring of bones that will supposedly keep the demons out.
Mother and Father are devout and fervent and never let their children forget that it is Etan’s world they live in. They are worked to the bone and abused regularly. At least at the start of the film, Caleb is mostly ok with all of this, but he wants a wife and companion of his own. Abigail is a strong young woman who only wants to be treated as an equal, and Elijah is young and small and the subject of much of Father’s ire.
As the film goes on and a wife for Caleb does arrive, this leads to more conflict and eventually a bloody climax. There’s a consistent tone of dread and discomfort throughout the film, a testament to Slater’s direction but also to the performances and the music. Dillon Baldassero’s score propels the events forward while at the same time amplifying how uncomfortable things are.
The performances, too, are excellent, with Watson and Warren doing excellent work as the children crumble under and resist their fathers’ administering of the faith. Watson has some heartbreaking moments and plays Caleb with a naivete that makes the character all the more compelling. Ellwand and Bennet play similarly devout but altogether opposite kinds of abusers. Ellwand is the quiet but ultimately more committed to the faith one who watches the children garden while holding a rifle, while Bennett makes a meal of the scenery as Father to the best of his ability in a big, stagey performance that works exceptionally well for the character.
The Family is a well-made film, and while there are those of you who will guess at some of the reveals pretty early on, there is more than enough here between the performances and the direction to make it an easy one to recommend.
The Family played as part of the 2021 Blood in the Snow Film Festival
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