The Hyperborean

The Hyperborean (2023)

The Hyperborean had its international première at Soho Horror Film Festival 2023

“I’m the patriarch of this family, I have a unique perspective on all this, and I’ve got the most to lose,” says ‘whisky magnate’ Hollis Cameron (Tony Burgess) about halfway through The Hyperborean. “In the basement what we have is criminal exposure – criminal exposure!  – and for that we’re gonna need a story.”

Jesse Thomas Cook’s weird tale, which Burgess (Pontypool, 2008) scripted, is part Succession-style dynastic saga, and part bizarro sci-fi, in which a clan of eccentric, entitled, ‘ugly’ characters have a close encounter with an entity beyond their comprehension – yet at the same time, the film, like its characters, is always on a quest for an acceptable story or stories to frame, to contain, perhaps even to bury, all the peculiar goings-on.

The Hyperborean opens with the first of these stories, lifted from the 1853 journal of ‘mad Moravian monk’ Johann August Miertsching (voiced by Thomas Allison), and accompanied by animated visuals to mark its mythic status. This story weaves together an account of the all-too-real McClure Arctic Expedition, and some altogether more Lovecraftian elements of cosmic horror, undead entities and occult rituals. 170 years later, a painting of McClure’s vessel HMS Investigator trapped in the pack ice of Banks Island’s Mercy Bay hangs on a wall of Hollis’ office, while 30 recovered barrels of the whisky (and other things) that the ship was transporting lie stored in the basement of his remote modernist weekend hideaway. Here the past and present are intimately connected – except that the present too is now also the past, as all this is being recounted two weeks later by Hollis’ daughter Diana (Liv Collins) to an increasingly bewildered pair of Cameron Holdings’ legal trustees (Steve Kasan, Marcia Alderson) and to Hollis’ hard-spinning crisis manager Mr Denbok (Justin Bott), tasked with finding a positive angle for the chaos and death that occurred a fortnight earlier.

The Hyperborean
Family gathering: Hollis (Tony Burgess), Lovie (Jessica Vano), Rex (Ry Barrett), Aldous (Jonatha Craig), Ian (Michael Masurkevitch) and Diana (Liv Collins)

After sickly artist Diana, Hollis’ other adult children Aldous (Jonathan Craig) and Rex (Ry Barrett) – along with Diana’s husband Ian (Michael Masurkevitch), Rex’s influencer girlfriend Lovie (Jessica Vano) and the butler/alternative healer Fontano (Justin Dermanin) – all gathered at the lakeside holiday house to hear of the patriarch’s latest madcap plans for the whisky enterprise that has made their fortune, something happens – something which leads to the death of Hollis himself (“He was sucked up into the sky, and he popped,” as Diana blankly explains at the very beginning of the film) and two others. There is indeed now criminal exposure, a crisis to be managed, and the future of the family business depends on the story that Diana reluctantly tells to her three interrogators – a story that she herself knows is entirely unbelievable, involving Arctic Ghost Ships, a “laser-blasting ice mummy”, resurrections, possessions, ascensions, impossible miracles, and more than one kind of leglessness. 

Burgess peppers the dialogue with endless sexual innuendo – intimate ‘cupping’, ‘getting wood’ (and ‘getting a soft woody hit in the back of my throat’), ‘drinking real seaman’ and ‘keep[ing] your bottom up’ – and leans right into the schlubby absurdities that others might downplay, ensuring that this collection of over-the-top grotesques and off-kilter experiences remains very funny, even as their messy, warts-and-all humanity is always foregrounded. Having previously collaborated on Septic Man (2013), The Hexecutioners (2015) and The Hoard (2018), Cook and Burgess once again prove themselves the natural inheritors of the Canuxploitation crown, delving deep into the outer limits of genre cinema with a fearlessness to match their unhinged humour. Yet for all its eldritch oddities and interstellar, interdimensional excursions, ultimately this is a film about a dysfunctional, damaged yet loving home, and the stories that we must tell about family in order to stay grounded, to keep an even keel and to find healing. After all, every child needs its mummy.

strap: Legless: Jesse Thomas Cook’s succession sci-fi comedy confronts a privileged family with its own drunken dysfunction

© Anton Bitel