Motherhood is mayhem. Just ask any woebegone mama of film history: Mia Farrow’s wide-eyed Rosemary Woodhouse, beset with paranoia; Margaret White, the religious zealot of Carrie who mistakes punishment for protection; the bloodthirsty Pamela Voorhees; the abusive Norma Bates.
Nowhere, though, is home to more mummy issues than Australia, a country that has hosted some of recent cinema’s stickiest forays into miserable mothers. See: The Babadook’s young widow defending her precocious son against a spindly storybook beast. Or 2020’s Relic, where three generations of women confront their relationships with one another while also confronting some sort of annoying demon disrupting their family reunion. Or, of course, Toni Collette’s longsuffering matriarch in Hereditary, her instantly famous diatribe – “I AM YOUR MOTHER!” – sending shockwaves through every mealy mouthed mama’s boy. If cinema can telegraph national identity, then Australia needs to go to therapy immediately.
Into this lineage comes director Daina Reid’s Run Rabbit Run, an Australian mummy horror so indebted to its forebears that it feels derivative by default. The cliches fly thick and fast: a squall of wind in the distance, a barren landscape striated by naked branches, ghoulish dreams awash with eldritch images. And that’s just the first five minutes. Before long, we meet that most crucial of tropes: a mother, Sarah (Sarah Snook), and her creepy daughter Mia (Lily LaTorre).
It’s Mia’s seventh birthday, but everything feels grim. Mia’s grandfather has recently died, and mother and daughter are still riding the aftershocks of his death. The sky is pallid, and the house – a chilly place somewhere in the city – easily dwarfs its two inhabitants. Sarah trudges through melancholia to put on a birthday celebration: a quiet affair with her ex-husband, Pete (Damon Herriman), and his new partner, Denise (Naomi Rukavina).
A white bunny has somehow entered the house, to Mia’s delight and Sarah’s consternation. It takes to hiding under tables and in eerie corridors: an unwelcome guest whose presence is less adorable than alarming. We return to the rabbit throughout the night, sometimes in spine-tingling closeup, its eyes gleaming devilishly in the blue-dark. Not since Monty Python has a rabbit looked so bloodthirsty; it’s no wonder Sarah tries – and fails – to exile the feral creature when she thinks no one’s watching. “Piss off,” she chides the bunny, who promptly bites her.
The bunny becomes one of Run Rabbit Run’s most tantalising elements. Its arrival might be a Lewis Carroll reference, especially given the name of Sarah’s sister – Alice – who went missing as a child. But the film quickly does away with the bunny’s mystery (supernatural, or merely strange?) to focus on Mia’s increasingly hostile demeanour. Something’s been off-kilter since her birthday: she’s suddenly demanding to visit Joan (Greta Scacchi), Sarah’s long-estranged mother whom Mia has never met. Before long, Mia is insisting that she is Alice reincarnate.
These are certainly intriguing threads, but they can’t help but feel recycled. Mia’s uncanny, sinister quirks are pulled straight from The Babadook; Sarah’s strained relationship with her ailing mother hews a little too close to Relic, with which this film shares two producers. Snook, of course, is typically excellent, fresh from her turn as Succession’s petulant, scheming Shiv Roy in another spiky role here – but even her performance, as it heightens towards a crazed delirium, recalls Toni Collette’s in Hereditary.
Run Rabbit Run pulls from each of these entries without ever quite congealing into its own work. At its worst, it replicates the most overplayed tendencies of so-called elevated horror, the subset of the genre which rejects outright thrills and chills in favour of a more subdued, and often duller, gloominess. Screenwriter Hannah Kent – better known for her novels – has a knack for morbid, moody portraits of women in isolated communities, but Run Rabbit Run leans on its atmosphere as a crutch, turning to an abstraction that feels increasingly limp. Something here is weird, we’re told for the fourth, fifth, sixth time.
Against all reasonable logic, Sarah returns to her late father’s country house with Mia in tow, where the film continuously hints at a darker current of dread eddying just beneath the surface: patches of blood that mysteriously appear on Mia’s forehead, or a back yard shed full of sharp tools. But these hints never erupt into something greater, and it begins to grow tiresome. Taken together, they play less like a film and more like a moodboard of scares. Motherhood, for all its mayhem, looks a little mundane.
Run Rabbit Run is being shown as part of Sydney film festival, on 10 and 15 June. It will premiere on Netflix worldwide on 28 June