The setting of an old dark house may help, but true gothic uncanniness comes from overdetermination – where multiple interpretations vie to frame a narrative, catching the reader, or viewer, in irresolvable contradictions. “What just happened?” is both the requisite response to the uncanny, and a question to which there ought to be no single answer. This is certainly the case with Jake Mahaffy’s The Reunion – the writer/director’s first foray into horror after the dramas Wellness (2008) and Free In Deed (2015). The ‘haunted castle’ here is the large New Zealand property in which young Ellie (Gina Laverty) spent her childhood – and with her grandparents recently passed away, the adult, heavily pregnant Ellie (Emma Draper) has returned from abroad for the first time in decades to see the house one last time before it is put on the market, and to try to find in its clutter the resolution to a trauma that she carries – like the baby in her belly – without fully understanding.
Ellie has a difficult, distant relationship with her mother Ivy (Julia Ormond) and her father Jack (John Bach) – the latter now a wheelchair-bound stroke victim and a mere shadow of the great surgeon he once was. Jack was never a great father, and although Ivy now seems loving and concerned towards Ellie, it will not be long before her own controlling behaviours come to the fore. Yet Ellie herself is a difficult, aggressive character, prickly and cold towards everyone except Gus (Cohen Holloway), her ex boyfriend from long ago who is now an architect working on restoring the house. Restoration is key here, as Ellie seeks to rebuild fragile relations, or at least herself, in hallways that echo with guilt and secrecy (Ivy insists on locking all the rooms’ doors). In keeping with the genre, this house will soon see the past resurface in the ghostly form of Cara (Ava Keane), Ellie’s adopted sister who died in a catastrophic fall there when both girls were still children. Cara’s spectral presence, along with the issuing of a black, bilious substance (‘black bile’ is the literal meaning of ‘melancholy’) from both the house’s plumbing and Ellie’s orifices, heralds a confrontation with an unspoken horrific history, and a messy return of the repressed.
This old mansion, colourfully decorated if faded (elegant work from production designer Kate Logan), has been turned inside out, with its collected crockery either piled over every available space. or already transferred by Ivy into eccentrically mislabelled packing boxes. The camera of DP Adam Luxton prowls fluidly from room to room, exploring all these resonant spaces, while aligning itself sometimes to Ellie’s own point of view, and sometimes to that of something more disembodied and elusive. This disjuncture in the cinematographic framing – along with some glitchy interferences in the editing suggestive of a home movie, like the one that Ellie will later watch – is just one of several strategies used by Mahaffy to confuse our sense of what is real and what is merely in the head of our heroine. Ellie has, we are told, a poor memory and has recently come off her meds, bringing an air of unreliability to both her present perceptions and past flashbacks. She is also a sleepwalker, and a vivid dreamer, again confounding our grip on the truth beyond her drifting, damaged psyche.
“I’m primarily interested in the modern codification and demystification through scientific and rational parallels of the twilight language of black magic – occult images and symbols that serve a dual and unified purpose to both hide and reveal, obscuring truth from those that do not know and revealing truth to those that are initiated.” So says Ellie in voiceover at the beginning of Reunion, in what in fact is a recording of one of her lectures. Yet this description of Ellie’s academic work, at the intersection of alchemy and experimental science, serves equally to characterise the film itself, which occupies a similar grey area between the rational and the irrational, with plenty of coded signifiers pointing towards different scenarios hidden beneath the surface narrative.
The house’s dust and detritus conceal in their many layers a profound, pervasive ambiguity. The unmedicated Ellie’s sleeping nightmares are put on the same footing as her waking experiences – which themselves become increasingly hallucinatory, as she starts to see not just Cara, but other signs of the preternatural in every corner and crate within the house. In a dancing dialectic of denial and admission, Ivy edits away Cara’s very existence (switching off an old video when the little girl appears on it), while Ellie keeps encountering Cara’s ghost, and tries to exorcise her own sense of past wrongdoing. Vivid yet conflicting flashbacks offer very different versions – and apportion different blame – as to how Cara came to die. We first hear that Ellie (who arrives with a black eye) had left her fiancé – and the father of her unborn child – because he was an abuser, but later overhear that she physically assaulted him when she caught him in adultery. Deciding between these contradictory stories is impossible – but Ellie’s father was also apparently an adulterer, and what is perhaps most important here is just having the phrase ‘an abusive man’ uttered aloud. Abuse, after all, is yet another resonant subtext for this family’s dissolution, and another explanation for the cycles of recriminatory, destructive behaviour that keep finding expression in this house of secrets.
At the centre of Reunion is a family heirloom – an exquisite ornamental crystalline vase, shattered long ago. Ellie carries a fragment of it on her person, and spends much of the film searching the boxes for the other pieces. It is a symbol of both this family’s fragmentation, and of Ellie’s desire, however vain, to repair and reintegrate what has become broken before starting her own family. Like Abattoir (2016), Winchester (2018), The Witch in the Window (2018) and Girl on the Third Floor (2019), Mahaffy’s feature unfolds to the rhythm of reconstruction work. As Gus can be heard outside hammering and sawing at the house’s restoration, Ellie is engaged in her own attempted acts of refurbishment, piecing together half-remembered, half-understood incidents from her childhood – some glimpsed through a keyhole (framing their illicitness), others witnessed more directly but partially suppressed, and others inflected with what she has been told to believe. Naturally, in keeping with the fixations of her research, Ellie plugs the holes in her own history with elements of the occult. Convinced of her own darkly sordid imperfection, and desperate to expiate a past that she can only really see through a child’s uncomprehending eyes and imagination, Ellie will eventually echo the cycle in which she has become caught, no doubt spreading further a fractured legacy that she is tragically incapable of mending.
Made to resonate with the plaintive score of Steven Lord and Tim Oxton, Reunion is a nuanced, slippery psychodrama, preferring intimation to exposition, and leaving the viewer ultimately unsure whether to celebrate or fear its anxious heroine’s apparent escape from deep dysfunction. “I’m not crazy!”, Ellie insists, not entirely convincingly – but the best gothic is built on foundations of madness.
© Anton Bitel