As with all review-caps, MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD for Son. You’ve been warned.
An often-used concept in horror is the parent who’s helpless to save their child. It almost always works because it’s something that scares us all to the core. For example, it’s the main reason why The Exorcist is – and will always be – the scariest story of all time. When you initially watch it, you’re naturally focused on Regan. The idea that such an innocent child becomes a grotesque and profane monster is truly terrifying. But when you see it again years later with the benefit of age and life experience, you’re more likely to see the story through her mother Chris’ eyes. Despite being a strong, powerful woman with all the money and resources in the world at her disposal, she’s completely helpless in the face of the otherworldly evil controlling her child – and that’s equally terrifying.
Son centers on single mother Laura (Andi Matichak from 2018’s Halloween) and her young son David (Luke David Blumm). Laura escaped from a cult when she was pregnant with David – and at the beginning of the story, she and now-8-year-old David are living a low-key, ordinary and most importantly, happy life. But all that changes one night when Laura hears noises coming from David’s room and sees a bunch of people standing around his bed.
By the time the local cops show up, Detectives Paul (Emile Hirsch) and Steve (Cranston Johnson) cannot find any signs of a break-in. Steve thinks Laura imagined it, chalking it up to sleepwalking or lucid dreaming – but Laura’s insistent that there were people in the house trying to kidnap David. Paul’s more sympathetic and says they’ll look into it. After they leave, she checks David for marks and bruises. She can’t find anything and when he wakes up, David says he doesn’t remember what happened, except that he was dreaming of drowning in a river of blood. Yikes.
Things get worse for Laura as repressed memories of her life in the cult resurface and David gets suddenly, unexplainably sick – like puking up blood and flesh-eating-rashes-type sick. Laura insists that the cult members poisoned him, but the doctors run every possible test and, of course, can’t find anything. They only know he’s getting worse by the minute and probably won’t make it through the night. Laura keeps the vigil with him and says her heartbreaking goodbyes – but by the next morning, he’s made a mysteriously complete recovery.
It’s not long before David’s sickness returns, though. And when Laura brings him back to the hospital, she overhears voices outside the room and sees the doctors saying things like, “The boy is the priority,” and “Wait until she’s asleep.” Laura looks out the window and sees some shady-looking men getting out of a car, and that’s all the motivation she needs to take David and leave. She takes him to the neighbor’s while she runs across the street to pack their stuff.
Paul calls Laura and says they need to meet, believing everyone is in on the conspiracy to kidnap David. But when she goes back across the street, she finds poor neighbor Susan (Erin Bradley Dangar) dead on the floor – and David making a meal of her major organs, saying he feels better. In a panic, Laura paints “He Is Coming” on the wall in Susan’s blood – a mantra used by the cult – and leaves town with David, chucking her phone out the window when Paul calls again.
She drives to a motel and sleeps while David watches cartoons, giggling like the kid he is. But in the morning, Laura wakes to see she and David are on the news. She switches cars and takes off again, telling David she needs to find an old friend who can help her remember what she’s forgotten. Meanwhile, Paul and Steve are at the morgue with the dead neighbor. Steve shows Paul a bunch of old newspaper articles about Laura – whose name used to be Anna – and the pedophile ring she was a victim of. Steve believes Laura killed the neighbor and the whole cult idea is a fantasy used to cover up the severe trauma she suffered.
While Laura seeks out a drug addict named Jimmy (Blaine Maye), who grew up in the cult with her, Paul does some investigating on his own and finds the shrink who treated Laura/Anna. She’d been institutionalized after her father was arrested for running the pedophile ring. He says Anna’s father used to pimp her out along with Jimmy and confirms that the whole cult idea was a story she constructed in her head.
But Jimmy tells a different story. He tells Laura/Anna that the cult used to have ceremonies where they killed animals. Then her father would have her recite this special chant that only she could do – a chant that would summon a demon who would then rape her.
Of course, Laura doesn’t want to believe that, saying it was her father who raped her – but Jimmy insists it was a demon. Then David gets sick again, and Laura takes him to another motel. But things are even worse this time as David becomes increasingly hostile toward her, screaming and ranting, “Get me some f**king food, you b**ch!”
Unable to handle it, Laura runs out to her car and screams her frustration, not knowing what to do – but then the answer to the problem shows up. There just happens to be a pimp rooming next door and she sees him beating on one of his girls. Definitely, someone, the world would be better off without. So Laura lures him to the room, and David takes it from there – making a vicious, bloody meal out of the guy. Laura cleans up the mess afterward as David watches cartoons, all better now and happy.
Then, they drive to a church where Laura dumps what’s left of the pimp and paints another “He Is Coming” message. Meanwhile, Paul and Steve show up at Jimmy’s house only to find him dead, too, with a bunch of crosses sticking out of his mouth and “He Is Coming” cut into his chest.
At another motel, David and Laura have this wonderful bonding moment. David says he was dreaming that he was flying and could see her. Then he says the world was in his hands and it cracked in half – there was fire, and everyone was screaming but that he was okay like he was a superhero. “Nothing could touch me,” he says. Laura says his sickness is getting worse and more frequent. She says she’ll stay with him, but she won’t let him kill anyone else.
At the pimp crime scene, Steve says it’s time to drop the net on Laura, but Paul says they need to go easy on her. David soon gets sick again and when a bunch of guys bust into their darkened room, Laura uses the gun she stole from the pimp and unloads.
But when she turns the lights on, it’s Steve and two other local cops that she’s killed. Later, after she’s put some distance between them, Laura calls Paul, who’s at the morgue with Steve’s body. She says she didn’t mean to kill him, and he begs her to turn herself in. But she tells him she’s going back where it all started – meaning the house where she lived with her father.
When they get to the abandoned house, the banner (from her memory) still flaps in the wind – but instead of “He Is Coming,” it says “Happy Birthday,” leading us to think Laura might be delusional after all. And when she goes up to the bedroom, it looks the same from her memories – except that there are no cult sigils. Then she goes back out to the car and brings sickly David in, saying that no matter what happens, she loves him and will always take care of him.
Laura carries him up to the bedroom and then recites the chant, which she remembers perfectly. She demands that the demon cure David – who she now believes is their son. Laura says she’ll kill David if it doesn’t. She repeats the chant several more times and an ugly, horned figure rises up behind them, moving slowly toward them.
Then, the room shakes and dark smoke billows out of the doorway – but just as the demon touches her, Paul busts in with a bunch of cops. Laura tells him she conjured the demon but that they scared him off. She says the cult fed David flesh to awaken the monster in him, but Paul says she imagined the whole thing. He says he can help her, but she says she can’t let David live like this. She loves him too much. And Paul shoots her before she can bring the knife down.
Later, in the hospital, Paul sits with David and tells him he’ll protect him and make him better. He waits for the nurse to get called away and then cuts off a slice of his arm to feed David. Yum. So apparently, Laura was right all along – the cult is very real, and Paul is a part of it. Paul says that no one can know who David really is – and it turns out that Paul killed Jimmy to silence him. Paul tells David he’ll never be alone again and that his father’s there for him now. And then David rises out of bed and hugs the horned beast, calling it “Daddy” and resting his head on its shoulder.
I wouldn’t say that Son is entirely successful as a total package – Emile Hirsch is woefully underutilized, and something about the whole thing just feels a little bit lacking. That said, it is absolutely worth watching for Andi Matichak’s performance – and the amazing interaction between her and Luke Blumm’s David.
The entire thing hinges on whether you find Laura to be credible – and what’s really cool is that Matichak makes Laura believable, both as a mother trying to protect her child – and as someone who’s suppressed her own severe trauma and maybe having a psychotic break. Director Ivan Kavanagh does a good job at setting up both versions of the story as believable – and it’s not until the very end that you get a definitive answer.
Kavanagh also isn’t shy about the blood and gore, which makes David’s homicidal, cannibalistic spells all the more horrific. But when he isn’t “sick,” he’s the sweetest kid you ever saw. The scene where he tells Laura about the flying dream and the world cracking in half is all at once lovely, heartbreaking and terrifying – an outstanding piece of acting on both Matichak and Blumm’s parts. Son makes me even more excited for Matichak’s upcoming Halloween Kills. I can only hope that she gets more lead roles in the future – as she’s clearly shown here that she can carry the weight.
Written and directed by: Ivan Kavanagh
Release Date: Mar. 5, 2020
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 98 min
Distributors: RLJE Films, Shudder