It’s very rare for a horror to startle your core, as if you’re being jolted awake from the mundanity of mainstream releases. Ivan Kavanagh’s engaging feature Son does just that, and periodically checks to make sure you’re awake with more oomph than a Netflix reminder. Skipped heartbeats can never be recouped, but it’s worth it to experience Son’s stimulating qualities. 

Kavanagh’s seventh film turns to Shudder for its release, presented in a neat, 98-minute tale of raw, maternal hell. Son’s premise is deceivingly bland, teeing up a mother who must protect her son from a mysterious illness, but its delivery is anything but vanilla. Instead, sudden deposits of the red, sticky stuff is like a sharp demand of attention, and its scenes cut in time with your heartbeat, at points, to let you know who’s in control. Kavanagh is, and it’s ever-present in his directing.

Son opens with unease and doesn’t let you go until the credits, following young mother Laura – played by Andi Matichak with an air of Carey Mulligan – who has a sinister past. Laura’s relationship with her eight-year-old son David is always believable, despite getting to know very little about their groundwork. When their introductory school trips get disrupted by an unnerving event, Emile Hirsch’s detective Paul steps in to offer his charm. From there on, David suffers from a mysterious illness that tests the will of Laura and the stomachs of viewers.

Son teeters on the edge of classic horror tropes before plunging into certain pockets for further exploration, and the dreaded jumpscares are cleverly placed at your behest. The occult is weaved throughout the narrative, where religious symbols are displayed effectively in everyday objects, but it’s primarily the strength of a mother and her mind that’s explored. One downstream scene – between Laura and a character who would have met a quick demise in any other horrors – is the perfect example of Kavanagh’s willingness to explore uncharted grounds, whilst using the scene’s unexpected lingering to build more tension. 

Your mind is plagued with intrigue towards Laura’s past from the first sequence, and its relatively steady pace unravels towards an eye-widening climax. Short stabs of Laura’s past is a constant reminder of the circumstances that have molded her into the commanding lead of this feature. Her fear of the past is challenged by her courage as a mother, and that sense of unconditional love and nurturing is rooted at Son’s core. 

Scenes of exposition temporarily stifles the pace, but there is always an undercurrent of uncertainty that keeps you engaged. Kavanagh’s writing is an adequate adhesive to hold Son’s progression together and he presents a headstrong protagonist to champion – despite Laura’s characteristics posing nothing too memorable. David is also the typical, vulnerable kid with little but Luke David Blumm’s acting chops to set his stance apart from other children of horror. But Hirsch is the one to watch, with his quiet familiarity that adds comfort to the alienation that indie horrors sometimes carry and his laid-back, gum-chewing detective is surprisingly grounding during those startling events.

Contrary to Son’s sudden flashes of horror, other displays of unsettling images last a hair-raising amount of time, but there’s never anything too upsetting to warrant a hide behind a pillow. Instead, your eyes may bulge in terror as sporadic jolts arise, offering a thrilling dose of adrenaline to keep you hooked. The horror’s momentum is nothing like being on a roller coaster, but rather a gyro drop that steadily builds before dropping you in mid-air by serving a blinding, deafening moment.

Between Aza Hand’s echoing score and the creak of Laura’s leather jacket, the give and take of audio is a demon in itself – happily waiting in the shadows before pouncing unexpectedly. The real staple in Kavanagh’s feature, however, are those unexpected moments punctured throughout a solid but sometimes lack-luster plot – similar to Alter’s brilliant anthology of horror shorts. The foreground narrative is heavily supported by Laura’s past, which often has an essence of folk horror surrounding it, and supplies Son’s mystery that will have you curious until the denouement.

Son may not be a feature you remember as a whole, but rather the unique way it shocked you into submission. Its story is not groundbreaking, but it presents its fable and delivers it well, with an eyebrow-raising conclusion that justifies your investment.

Rating: ★★★

RLJE Films will release the horror SON in theatres, on digital and On Demand on  March 5, 2021.