31 by 31 Challenge #4: THE PERISHED (2019)

@craiggors

For decades, unmarried women who got pregnant in Ireland were sent to “mother and child homes” sponsored and run by the Catholic Church where they were kept out of sight of “polite” society and, presumably, made to atone for their most grievous of sins. The reports surrounding the conditions and practices of these homes are sickening at best and appalling at worst, including hundreds of bodies of children found in a mass, unmarked grave. This is the backdrop against which writer and director Paddy Murphy sets this personal and piercing, if somewhat muddled, film.

Sarah Dekker’s (Courtney McKeon) life is upended when she discovers that she’s pregnant. Before she can tell either her boyfriend Shane (Fiach Kunz) or her parents (Conor Lambert & Noelle Clarke), however, Shane breaks up with her and her strict Catholic mother finds the positive pregnancy test and promptly kicks her daughter out of the house. Unable to face life as a single mother, Sarah goes to England for an abortion, then returns and recuperates in the country home of her friend Davet (Paul Fitzgerald). What neither of them know, however, is that the house is actually the site of a mass infant grave, and Sarah’s presence has awoken the unsettled spirits of the lost children, desperate for a mother.

The Perished is meant to be a slow-burn, so much so that the first quarter of the film feels more like a social drama. It’s great set-up, though, as when the moments of horror start creeping in, the viewer feels their unease all the more. As Sarah is coping with her choice, the remains of her life, and the loss of her most important relationships, something sinister is building around her. Something marked by tiny cries that only she can hear, and visions of a ghoulish monster that would make Clive Barker proud.

As the tension builds, those potent beats that provide insight into character and motive give way to monster moments and body horror. As we push towards the climax, that oh-so-specific kind of guilt that hangs over Sarah, and blankets the film itself, transforms into a a more straightforward type of horror as Sarah’s body begins to show signs of a second, more advanced pregnancy, and the monstrous avatar of the murdered babies comes out in full force. It’s an interesting choice as while the creature effects are phenomenal and truly would heighten any latter Hellraiser film, the viewer doesn’t feel the same sense of palpable dread that we felt early on when Sarah was cast out by her own family and the resulting trauma.

There’s a question of scope and scale when it comes to this film, I think. It’s an enormous and heavy subject matter to tackle, and I applaud the filmmakers for being unafraid to journey into the dark, but I found myself confused by the ultimate message of the film in the end. By all accounts, the film is championing choice, tolerance, and self-care. The heartbreaking title cards that bookend the film drive home the real-world horrors surrounding these issues in Ireland, and the discrimination faced by women who have made the choice to have an abortion. It’s also clear that church and state alike have contributed to and supported these actions and stigmas, and I would have liked to have seen a stronger critique of those institutions for allowing these crimes to occur. As it stands, the events that unfold at the house seem to be punishing Sarah rather than the true culprits, which skews the message a bit. Sarah has chosen not to be a mother at this particular moment in her life, but in the end is forced to become one by the perished. Is this her penance? It’s unclear.

The Perished is a brave, honest movie that takes on taboo subjects and weighty, real life topics. A solid start and creepy middle lose steam in the final act, where characterization and historical importance take a backseat for some admittedly excellent gore and creature effects. It’s clear that Murphy is a talented filmmaker to watch, however. The film shows his skill at navigating depth, tone, and tension. He clearly knows what’s horrifying. It may just be that he’s taken on something too terrifying, or too grand, here, but you can feel the effort behind his storytelling. And with that kind of passion driving him, I’ll be first in line to see what comes next.

Many thanks to Celtic Badger Media for a screener in exchange for an honest review.

The Perished