Remember the glory days of when horror movies were released during the Summer and Fall, feeling as if you had to wait months to get your fix on the few wide releases? Now, thanks to streaming platforms like Shudder, we can get our horror fix 24/7. Because of streamers providing the goods, we’re seeing an onslaught of the horror genre become “water cooler talk” on social media and in the industry, as well as learning that these stories are resonating more with audiences. In turn, horror filmmakers are finding their place in the market and a home base with these niche streaming services.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Son writer-director Ivan Kavanagh, and after our conversation, I’ve come to fully understand why these stories resonate so personally for viewers - stories are coming from a visceral and personal place. Ivan shed some light on what sparked the idea for his movie Son, “Usually all [of] my things I've written usually starts from a very personal place. This particular story starts with after the birth of my son…he had a very difficult birth. I began to see how close my wife and my son were growing, and that mother-son bond is so special, you know, so strong. I began to think, is there anything a mother who loves her son wouldn't do? Is there any length you wouldn't go to protect them? And that was the spark.”
The film starts off in an instant with Laura (Andi Matichak) fleeing an unwelcomed situation giving us the immediate thrill of scares. We’re soon introduced to her son, David (Luke David Blumm), who is visited by a mysterious group of unknown intruders while he’s asleep. After this visit, David falls violently ill, and Laura’s maternal instincts kick in to save him, no matter what the cost. All the while, local cop Paul (Emile Hirsch) is thrown into the mix as he attempts to protect Laura and David from this mysterious group that Laura has identified as members of a cult she once reluctantly belonged to.
Ivan isn’t new to the horror scene as a filmmaker. His 2014 film The Canal did quite well on the festival circuit, premiering at Tribeca. Off of the film’s success, Ivan was able to move onto making his next film Son after an enthusiastic response to his screenplay that his producers sent to Shudder – but he had to secure funding from multiple sources before calling action. He received support from Screen Ireland and scouted the United States for the best tax breaks. It was essential that the setting would also visually support the story of his film. He visited Mississippi for a month and knew this was where Son would take place, “It was dripping with atmosphere and it added so much to the film.” It’s rare that a film can go from script to screen so quickly, “Funding for a film is a tenuous thing to put together because if one of those bodies falls off the project the whole film falls apart. We’re lucky this one came together really quickly after I finished the script.”
There are many theories out there as to why horror is making such a large resurgence the last few years – either it be fascination from the viewership or even from a financier or a mix of both. Ivan gleaned, “It may not be true, but I’ve heard from multiple sources and multiple producers, our films are one of the only genres that is almost guaranteed to make their money back.” Household name streaming services, like Netflix and Hulu, now have main sections for horror – making it feel more mainstream. Having been a horror fan since childhood, he’s pretty appreciative of this uptick in viewing, he loves making these films.
When Ivan isn’t behind the camera, he’s sticking to his morning writing regimen – starting as early as 6:00 a.m. for at least three hours. “I just begin writing, and it could be just a stream of consciousness or just ideas I'm jotting down, but I feel like writing is like a muscle it needs to be exercised every day. I get very rusty very quick and it takes me a while to get back into it. So that's why I work every day so I have a definite regime. And I usually start with this initial idea. And to be perfectly honest, I very rarely do treatments and outlines.”
A great element about this film is how the setting and the set dressing plays such a key role in the story and its freights – from the incredibly disturbing dolls perched by the stairwell (which also terrified Ivan) to the hand-picked paintings that Ivan and his production designer picked up at junk shops and secondhand stores in Mississippi. There’s a poignant scene with Laura and David when we think they’ve finally found solitude for a moment at a rundown motel, there’s a very perverse painting in the room looming over them that draws a parallel to a previous scene between mother and son. “There was a beautiful parallel to that area where she's checking in her son's mouth, just in case the cult did anything to him, you know, she's looking for marks…it became like a motif quoting two paintings at a certain time like when after a particularly brutal murder I cut to a very serene painting of a young lady sitting down as if she's commenting on the horrible scene.” Ivan even went the extra visual distance and had a painting commissioned - which appears when Laura first meets Paul and he’s taking her fingerprints - it’s actually a distorted picture of actress Andi Matichak.
We won’t get into spoiler territory here, but Ivan uses the red herring device effectively. Especially playing to Laura’s fears that she is all alone as she attempts to escape this hellscape she and her son are in – the sense of feeling that everyone is in cahoots with the cult, including her son’s doctors. He adds, “I put all my anxieties into it and one of my anxieties is being terrified of hospitals, and I'm terrified of doctors. So, I put my mistrust of doctors into the film.”
Ivan imparts some advice for budding horror filmmakers, “Watch lots of movies. Watch how a scare is constructed. Actually, just watch one move to learn how suspense is constructed, and that’s Psycho. I know it’s technically not a horror movie, but it’s textbook. It has everything to do with character building. Everything is in there to great twists and building suspense. Just watch Psycho repeatedly.”
There’s more in store for Ivan. He’s already finished writing his next feature that he will helm. Plus, he’s written a TV series but plans to maybe take a step back as a director from the TV project and handoff to someone else.
Son will be available in theaters, On Demand and Digital on March 5, 2021.