There is a rich history of creepy children in cinema. This subgenre of scary movies has been on the forefront ever since the heyday of the 1970s when films such as The Exorcist and The Omen frightened the pants off of the masses while cementing their place in horror lore. Writer/director David Willing (co-written by Beth King) hopes his Australian independent production Surrogate is the next psychological thriller/horror movie in that illustrious line. Did Willing and the excellent cast pull it off? They certainly got the chilling atmosphere right.
The film starts with a little girl named Rose (Taysha Farrugia) having an intimate family celebration of her ninth birthday. As she is about to go to bed, she asks the familiar childhood question of her mother, Natalie (Kestie Morassi), if there are any monsters under her bed. Of course, her mom says no, but the audience knows better.
Natalie is a nurse, and on her way home at night, she has a couple of strange encounters with a woman (Jennifer Vuletic) who seems quite mentally and physically ill. Later on, at home, Natalie starts to feel very sick herself until she wakes up in the middle of the night, covered in blood from the waist down. The next thing she knows, she’s in the hospital, with a child protective services worker named Lauren Balmer (Jane Badler) grilling her about her apparently failed pregnancy, which Natalie says is impossible since she hasn’t had sex in over a year.
“…Natalie starts to feel very sick herself until she wakes up in the middle of the night, covered in blood…”
Given the title, Surrogate, it’s predictable that what comes next is a little demon-like child on the loose. Willing does an excellent job of ratcheting up the suspense with both his writing and directing. The highlights are little touches like keeping Natalie on edge on two fronts (with social worker Lauren constantly trying to bust her for child endangerment), but sadly the actual scares are few and far between. We see little glimpses of the evil child here and there, along with the aftereffects of the havoc that she wreaks on the family, but nothing scary enough to chill your bones with fright after all the buildups.
Kestie Morassi and Taysha Farrugia carry the film with their spot-on performances of a family grappling with a monster. The mysterious characters of Malcolm Akard (Matthew Crosby) and his psychic daughter Ava (Ellie Stewart) are also standouts in their brief appearances that culminate with the scariest sequence in the movie. The performances really drive the film, and I could envision this working with a few tweaks as a family drama about strong female characters (Uncle Will, played nicely by Darcy Kent, is one of the few male characters to be found), as opposed to a horror movie.
I always say that horror on a low budget is a difficult thing to pull off, but so much of the heavy lifting is done by the suspense of a family in perpetual danger. The only thing lacking, in this case, is the pay-off in actual scares. Surrogate is a worthwhile journey that held my attention throughout, with top-notch performances from a mostly female cast.
"…a worthwhile journey that held my attention throughout, with top-notch performances from a mostly female cast."