Cerebrum (2022)

Cerebrum had its world première in the First Blood strand at FrightFest 2022

Writer/director Sébastien Blanc’s feature debut Cerebrum opens with a quote from Goethe (“Life belongs to the living, and he who lives must be prepared for changes”) and with a creepy dream sequence about the ties that bind. For young William Blackwell (Tobi King Bakare) stands, dazed and disoriented, in a surreally lit woodland road at night, with a crashed car smoking in the background. William’s mother Amelia (Ramona Von Pusch) will emerge from the trees, and then tug on a thick rope placed around her son’s waist even as he begs her to let him go – and as a vehicle barrels inexorably towards him out of the darkness.  

When William wakes with a gasp from this nightmare, he discovers that he has not merely been asleep, but comatose in a hospital for months, following a road accident in which evidently Amelia was also involved. His neurologist father Richard (Steve Oram) takes him home, but amid an oppressive climate of guilt and denial, keeps deferring the moment when William can see his mother again. Richard is a complicated man. “Have I ever failed?” he will later ask William, in assertion of his own perfectionism if not perfection – and if these are standards which William himself has, at least in the demanding Richard’s eyes, singularly failed to meet, then we can also see that Richard is something of a failure as a father, constantly disappointed in, and dishonest with, his son. “He is not a monster,” Amelia says of Richard in a flashback. Perhaps she is – or was – right, but with his basement laboratory and his unorthodox experiments, Richard is certainly a Dr Frankenstein, desperate to resurrect the family that he has lost, and hubristic enough not to mind leaving a few bodies in the wake of his scientific endeavours. It is hardly a coincidence that William’s doctor (Chandrika Chevli) has the surname Shelley.

Having miraculously survived death, William will gradually regain his speech and mobility, and remember the traumatic incident that caused his and his mother’s injuries. Amelia’s recovery plays out in parallel to William’s, and much as he is, as an adoptee, a conspicuously black child to white parents, Amelia too has become as much a stranger as a familiar member of the Blackwell household. For, as an absent presence, Amelia haunts both William and Richard like a ghost, clinging to life and to her beloved son as if by that long rope seen in the opening sequence. It is just enough rope to hang them all.    

Change is indeed coming, not least in the way that Blanc has adapted and updated not just Mary Shelley’s groundbreaking novel of science fiction and horror, to our own era, but also Joseph Green’s The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1962), Carl Reiner’s The Man With Two Brains (1983) and Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985) to more sombre, sober idioms. For Cerebrum is a depraved domestic saga – part tragedy, part psychodrama – where home is a place of alienation as much as comfort, and where familial love is reasserted, and reembodied, in terrible, perverse ways that go against nature, taking life from the living and giving it to the dead. In the end, as this dysfunctional dynasty is torn apart at the seams, we are left to wonder what on earth the authorities, audibly approaching, will make of the scene that confronts them. Of course their imagined confusion and horror, playing out entirely in the brain, serves to mirror and modulate our own.

strap: Sébastien Blanc’s hallucinatory domestic sci-fi horror updates Frankenstein to tug at the family ties that bind

© Anton Bitel