Vivariums claustrophobic horror hits a little too close to home right now

Enlarge / Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg star in Vivarium.Vertigo Releasing

A house-hunting excursion turns into a nightmarish scenario for a young couple in Vivarium, a science fiction horror film directed by Lorcan Finnegan. The film has its strengths, but at a time when half the world is hunkered down in quarantine in the midst of a global pandemic, the claustrophobically surreal premise of two people trapped inside a cookie-cutter house against their will might hit a bit too close to home for comfort.

(Mostly mild spoilers; one major spoiler below the gallery)

Finnegan and screenwriter Garret Shanley made a short film in 2011 called Foxes, about a young couple trapped in an empty housing development. It was inspired, according to Finnegan, by Ireland's "ghost estates:" the remnants of that country's construction boom, brought down by the collapse of the housing market and global financial meltdown of 2008. Buyers found themselves trapped in homes they couldn't unload because their mortgages were underwater. He also found inspiration in a scene from the 1990 Nicolas Roeg film, The Witches (based on the Roald Dahl novel)—namely, a scene where a little girl is trapped inside a painting by a witch, eventually growing old and dying within it.

Vivarium is the full-length feature-film version of that original idea. It premiered last year at the Cannes Film Festival and made its way around the festival circuit before being picked up for distribution by Saban Films. And it has been garnering quite a bit of positive word-of-mouth along the way. Per Wikipedia: "A vivarium is an area, usually enclosed, for keeping and raising animals or plants for observation or research." It translates into "place of life," and it can be a small terrarium, for example, or something much larger, like Biosphere 2. It's pretty obvious that the film's suburban paradise is meant to be just such a place.

Imogen Poots plays Gemma, who is in a committed relationship with Tom (Jesse Eisenberg). They decide to check out the home options in a wholesome development called Yonder ("It has all you'd need and all you'd want"), and a very creepy real estate agent named Martin (Jonathan Aris) shows them around #9. Yonder is basically a large grid of identical streets filled with identical cookie-cutter houses, with the same cookie-cutter backyards. Martin seems especially keen to show them the nursery, inquiring about their plans for children.

Things take a weird turn when Martin disappears, and Gemma and Tom try to leave. They drive around in circles, always coming back to #9, until night falls and they have no choice but to take shelter in the house. Food and other amenities are regularly delivered in packages, and soon Gemma finds a package with a baby boy inside and an ominous note: "Raise the child and be released." They are clearly prisoners in Yonder, but they don't have much of a choice except to comply.

(WARNING: one major spoiler below.)

  • Welcome to Yonder, which promises you the perfect forever home. YouTube/Vertigo Releasing
  • Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) decide to check out the neighborhood. YouTube/ONE Media
  • Realtor Martin (Jonathan Aris) is very strange. YouTube/ONE Media
  • A showing of #9. YouTube/ONE Media
  • Gemma and Tom seem to be driving in circles, unable to leave Yonder. YouTube/ONE Media
  • Tom seeks out a rooftop view. YouTube/ONE Media
  • There's no end in sight. YouTube/ONE Media
  • A literal cry for help. YouTube/ONE Media
  • Desperate measures. YouTube/ONE Media
  • What's in the mysterious package? YouTube/ONE Media
  • An adorable baby boy. YouTube/ONE Media
  • This is Gemma's "WTF" face. YouTube/ONE Media
  • Tom and Gemma must raise the child to win their freedom. YouTube/ONE Media
  • Man, that kid is growing fast YouTube/ONE Media
  • The longest 98 days of their lives. YouTube/ONE Media
  • The Boy (Senan Jennings) throws a tantrum. YouTube/ONE Media
  • Tom and Gemma give zero f*#ks. YouTube/ONE Media/Saban Films

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