2020 proved to be a strong year for New Zealand horror films. A country whose national cinema has always punched well above its weight (much to the envy of nearby Australia, a fact so cliched as to almost have become a running joke), when it comes to genre film especially, as national icon Peter Jackson’s earlier films indicate, New Zealand and New Zealanders have long had a particular flair for horror especially.
While Chinese-New Zealand filmmaker Roseanne Liang’s Shadow in the Cloud won the Midnight Madness Audience Choice Award at TIFF last year, another New Zealand-made horror film – Jake Mahaffy’s Reunion – showed a very different take on the genre in an intimate, at times even suffocating horror-melodrama about an adult woman trapped in a fraught entanglement with her estranged mother.
Beginning his career in America, as a film academic in New Zealand Mahaff landed firmly on his feet with Reunion, with the fortunate combination of skills that allow him to navigate the international funding/distribution world, but also being enmeshed enough in the local filmmaking scene to make a film that feels distinctly “New Zealandy”.
This partially comes from a stand-out central performance by Emma Draper who plays Ellie, the troubled, pregnant adult daughter who returns to her now-dead grandparents’ home that is filled with secrets she struggles to face. Yet adding further to the more transnational nature of the film we find the great British actor Julie Ormond as Ellie’s mother Ivy, and it is largely the electricity between these two women that carries the film as the shocking skeletons in the closets reveal themselves.
Mahaff directs a consciously low-key, carefully paced film that balances perfectly with Ormond’s increasing excessiveness, Ivy recalling at times some of the great queens of hagsploitation cinema that flourished after Joan Crawford and Bette Davis set the screen on fire with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. While in many ways that kind of movie offers one way to approach this film, that sits in tension perhaps with the similar set-up at least of Natalie Erika James’s Relic; while very different films with very different creative and thematic visions, both Relic and Reunion hinge on tensions between mothers and daughters, the supernatural hovering uncomfortably in the nooks and crannies of their respective dark old houses.
A compelling, well-made film that creeps up on you, Reunion has a sting in the tail that is hard to forget, but the surface similarities with Relic in its premise at least risk this gem being lost in the shadows of its more famous Australian cousin.