By Theresa Rodewald.
The demonic presence itself is never properly explained or explored…. Still, Lair tells an interesting story with numerous twists and turns and has quite a few chilling moments.”
Steven Caramore (Corey Johnson) is a ghost hunter who does not believe in ghosts. To him, the supernatural is a business, he sells all kinds of supposedly possessed paraphernalia, from murderous dolls to a demonic black Madonna. When fellow ghost hunter and loving father Ben Dollarhyde (Oded Fehr) suddenly slaughters his family, claiming afterwards that a demon has possessed him, Steven hatches a plan that should either prove his friend’s innocence or turn over a tidy profit. Steven and his remaining ghost hunter colleague Ola (Kashif O’Connor) plant all their creepy merchandise and a couple of hidden cameras in a flat that they then rent to Maria Engel (Aislinn De’Ath), her girlfriend Carly Cortes (Alana Wallace) and Maria’s daughters Joey (Anya Newall) and Lilly (Lara Mount). They want to spend a few days in London, away from Maria’s messy divorce. Soon, however, tensions within the family rise while shadowy figures and strange apparitions inside the flat are captured on surveillance footage. Steven, meanwhile, is forced to ask himself whether maybe, the supernatural does exist after all.
Horror films are full of dysfunctional families. From The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980) to The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2015) the genre has explored the underbelly of the nuclear family. These films face the violence that underlies the patriarchal structure of the nuclear family (just think, for example of Jack Torrance’s axe-wielding lunacy in The Shining) or express anxieties around issues like parenthood and child development – here, the theme of the ‘possessed’ child as explored in The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973) springs to mind.
The nuclear family has long been the small, suffocating and hermetically sealed unit of father, mother and child(ren). Lair is perhaps one of the first horror films to modernise the genre in a way that reflects contemporary society. The family in Lair, is a rainbow/patchwork constellation, an all-female unit that embodies the hopes and dreams of a forward-thinking society. Placing this family at the centre of a horror film – a genre dedicated to uncovering the repressed and the horrific – is a way of moving the genre forward. It is also an important step for the representation of rainbow families as average families, with flaws and fissures, suggesting that there are unhappy rainbow families just as there are happy ones.
Independent and collaborative filmmaking
Lair is a solid first feature, especially when taking into account its micro-budget and bumpy production history. The project was first picked up by Fox International Productions but when Disney took over 20th Century Fox in early 2020, Lair was immediately dropped. Post-production was impacted considerably by the pandemic and so it is quite an achievement for a small, independent feature like Lair to be released at all. On a tiny budget, the film manages good special effects by Tristan Versluis, smart camerawork by Stuart Nicholas White and confident performances – especially from newcomers Anya Newall and Lara Mount.
In terms of filmmaking, Lair has its heart in the right place. Instead of branding it “a film by Ethan Adam Crow”, the opening titles mark Lair as a “film by a family of filmmakers”. This collaborative aspect of filmmaking is often either overlooked or deliberately obscured. The director as auteur frequently takes precedence over the fact that many people work together to create a movie. Writer/director Adam Ethan Crow has described the film as “the fruit of the combined harvest, not from just one tree.” In addition to foregrounding the collaborative aspect of their craft, the filmmakers have made an effort to be inclusive in front of and behind the camera which is highly commendable. Not only does the story centre around a queer couple, but the filmmakers also collaborated with an LGTBQ+ extras agency.
Still, the film is not without its flaws and it ultimately has a lot of heart but less to offer in terms of story. The constant switching between different points of view takes away from rather than adds to the mounting suspense. There is Steven watching and commenting on the surveillance footage, there are the creepy incidents in the flat and of course there is the slowly escalating conflict between Maria and her teenage daughter Joey on the one Maria and her girlfriend Carly on the other hand. The dialogue, though funny at times, is quite inconsistent. Some lines (“I’d unplug your life support to charge my phone.”) come across as jarring.
Mainly, the film cannot decide whether it wants to be straightforward supernatural horror in the vein of movies from the Conjuring Universe, psychological horror like His House (Remi Weeks, 2020) or a more ambivalent mix of both like Hereditary (Ari Aster, 2018).
In recent years, British horror films have been a trove of innovative filmmaking. Movies such as Censor (Prano Bailey-Bond, 2021), His House or Saint Maude (Rose Glass, 2019) use genre tropes to address issues ranging from immigration to trauma. Whether it is a social critique or an emotional truth, these movies have something to say. The fact that Lair focuses on a dysfunctional patchwork/rainbow family is an asset and an opportunity to explore anxieties around modern family constellations, intergenerational conflict or even mental illness. As it is, the film neither explores the fraud mother-daughter relationship between Maria and Joey, nor how rainbow families can be unhappy or even abusive. Lair touches briefly upon these issues but never goes beyond the superficial.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with a straightforward horror movie that does not delve deeply into social or psychological issues. Lair‘s problem is that its various story elements – supernatural horror, ghost hunter story, family drama – do not form a whole, they clash. Due to this lack of focus, the film misses both, the opportunity to move beyond genre and the pleasure of dedicating itself to it, concentrating on chills and scares.
It is then not surprising that the demonic presence itself is never properly explained or explored. In the end, there is no clear natural or supernatural explanation of what transpired, nor is there a deliberate blurring of the two which makes for a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion.
Still, Lair tells an interesting story with numerous twists and turns and has quite a few chilling moments. Its mix of horror, cringe and comedy, though confusing at times, is never boring. The film is a recommendation for die-hard fans of the genre and everyone interested in up and coming horror filmmakers. It will be interesting to see what writer/director Crow and his family of filmmakers, among them producer Shelley Atkins, editor Ben Hooton or actor Anya Newall do next, as Lair has vision, heart and a lot of ideas.
Lair is now streaming in North America on Digital and VoD.
Theresa Rodewald, MA, studied Cinema Studies at Stockholm University in Sweden and Cultural Studies in Germany and Ireland. She writes for a number of independent film magazines, including L-MAG and Berliner Filmfestivals, and has written about critiques of capitalism in current gangster films, images of masculinity in Scarface (1932) and the representation of queer women in mainstream cinema. She is a contributor to David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, December 2021).