Hell House


The horror of the bourgeoisie can only be overcome by more horror.” So said the solemn hippie cannibals of Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend. And so it is with George Ratliff’s Joshua, a nifty psychological thriller—part Bad Seed, part Rosemary’s Baby—that deals in a manner both comic and creepy with the parental anxieties of a Manhattan haute yuppie family.

The birth of a baby triggers the tale. Mom (Vera Farmiga) and Dad (Sam Rockwell) are both severely stressed—she’s a neurotic harridan, he’s a happy-go-lucky hysteric. These parents are like kids themselves, while their nine-year-old son Joshua (Jacob Kogan) is a parody adult—stiff, unsmiling, always dressed in his private-school blazer and tie, curiously morbid, and alienated to the point of autism. “Do you ever feel weird, Dad?” he asks. “How do you feel about your weird son?” Weirdness is compounded by the supporting in-laws: Mom’s bizarrely cheerful gay brother (Dallas Roberts) and Dad’s stridently born-again mother (Celia Weston).

Young Josh is a compulsive piano-player, and his pounding at the keyboard sets the mood the way that “cool ghoul” John Zacherley did on the old TV show Chiller Theater. Josh’s musical career peaks at a maliciously rendered private-school recital; his rendition of “Twinkle Twinkle” goes clamorously atonal before passing into performance art of an ominously visceral nature. Josh, who has a disquieting habit of just appearing, develops some strange nocturnal patterns, staying up all night watching home videos of his colicky baby self. This, just as the newbie goes on a five-day crying jag. Mom, who is already expressing her milk because of nursing difficulties, does not react well.

Ratliff renders this all with a suitably queasy visual style, using a wide-angle lens to deform the apartment space and further maul Farmiga’s drawn features. As she gets crazier, so does her son— resolving to give away all his toys and embalm his pet panda. What with the strange noises emanating from the empty apartment upstairs, it’s hard to tell who is the most disturbed member of the family— although it’s understandable that Dad freaks out at the fate of the pet dog. Around the time Mom starts to hallucinate things coming through the ceiling, Grandma moves back in, announcing that Josh has found Jesus. “Too bad that his mother is a big fat Jew!” Mom screams, introducing a bit of religious conflict that remains tantalizingly underexplored.

So far, so good—for all the craziness, Joshua is still based largely on the power of suggestion and caginess as to which character is actually having the breakdown. But as Dad’s hair grows progressively wilder and his speech less coherent, so does the narrative. Ratliff lost me with the introduction of a child psychologist who makes house calls and snap diagnoses. Still, it’s refreshing to see a horror film based on adult anxieties: The terror of the baby cam can only be overcome by more terror.

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