The bond between parent and child has proved fertile ground for horror for decades, from acknowledged classics like Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen to recent favourites like The Babadook. Ivan Kavanagh’s Son follows in this tradition, blurring the lines between earnest psychological drama and the ‘monstrous child’ narratives like The Omen, or recent genre fare like Brightburn. The results are narratively jumbled, but not uncompelling.

We first meet young Laura (Andi Matichak) unwillingly giving birth in her car, having just escaped the religious cult in which she has spent all her life. We then jump forward eight years, and Laura dotes on her son David (Luke David Blumm), raising him herself while working as a kindergarten teacher. After a terrifying incident in which she discovers an entire group of strangers stood by David’s bed, the boy becomes deathly ill with some sort of necrotic disease. He recovers as abruptly as he was struck down, and Laura takes off with him across country, believing that the cult are out to track them down. On top of this, David’s disease seems to be vampiric in nature, requiring that Laura goes to increasingly extreme lengths to keep him ‘healthy’.

Andi Matichak (from the reprised Halloween franchise) shines in a lead role, carrying the film with a sure hand. This is vital, since everything is viewed through Laura’s possibly skewed perspective. As her position shifts from lioness protecting her cub to that of David’s familiar, our certainty over her version of events shifts accordingly. As investigating detective (and potential love interest) Paul (a restrained, almost dour, Emile Hirsch) follows the trail of blood, different horrendous shards of her fractured life emerge. And they don’t add up. Throughout, it remains ambiguous whether Laura has been driven to psychosis by trauma, or whether David is the sins of the father made suppurating flesh. Whatever she may or may not be guilty of, the knowledge of her past, and Matichak’s excellent performance, will always provoke empathy.

As the narrative becomes muddier, the quality dips a little. The Midnight Special via Let the Right One In road movie aspect works really well, and the supernatural element being a manifestation of Laura’s trauma would be satisfying in and of itself. The ambiguity about Laura’s past strips away a lot of the thrilling tension of the pair’s flight, and the resulting doubts over David’s condition lessens both his impact as a character in his own right, and the taut and agonised bond he shares with Laura. Despite young Blumm’s best effort, the boy ends up as a plot device. It isn’t a fatal miscalculation, but Son is at its strongest when it foregrounds the mother and son relationship.

Son is undoubtedly flawed in its storytelling and execution, but is better than several negative reviews have posited. Kavanagh’s outsider view of the snatches of Americana glimpsed through motels and hurried meals at rundown diners is a curiously sombre, but hugely atmospheric perspective. The frequent neon seems to merely deepen the shadows rather than illuminate its spaces. It ultimately loses sight of its strongest assets, but at its best, there’s a confident manipulation of character and tone and Matichak remains hugely impressive, even as Laura becomes increasingly nebulous.

Available on Shudder from Thu 8 Jul 2021