The Family – existential dread, control, and cults

“and if they were not your creators?”

Does a human being ever owe another human being for bringing them into existence? Is supposed creation cause for unquestionable servitude and eternal gratitude despite the circumstances of their condition? Do cult leaders have a genuine interest in the well-being of their followers? Do religion and the fear of the unknown justify horrible means? Or, is it all just in the interest of serving a leader’s needs, wants, and ego? The film ‘The Family’ directed by Dan Slater and co-written with Adm Booth, poses these questions and more throughout its 1-hour 50-minute runtime.

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I was able to view The Family courtesy of ‘Blood in the Snow’ festival, and I enjoyed The Family very much. The film does bring to mind other folk horror films, but I left my second viewing pleasantly surprised by its depth, considering the limited locale and cast of characters.

The plot of The Family centers around precisely what the film’s title alludes to. Or is it more of a cult? They are the same as far as this reviewer is concerned. The family consists of Father (Nigel Bennet), Mother (Toni Ellwand), Caleb (Benjamin Charles), Abigail (Jenna Warren), Evelyn (Yasmin MacKay), and Elijah (Onyx Spark).

The Family 2021 Festival Film

The family resides on some land in anywhere in North America. Just outside the farm and residence of this family is a “threshold” comprised of animal bones and other debris that forms a line around the family land. Cross that line and you enter a land possessed by “Abaddon.” The family fears what lies beyond these borders and religious Abaddon is akin to Satan within Christian faiths. Strange noise emanates from above periodically and the family flees, fearing Abaddon is at hand. The family prays to “Etan,” Their speech is consistently littered with “blessed be, blasphemy, the flock, pay a penance” and other religious phrases and idioms. Their religion is fictional, but the faith on display and what humans will perpetuate and endure for their religious beliefs are not.

Life is hard labor for “the flock.” Mother and Father’s crops and animals aren’t going to feed and tend to themselves after all. The young people are worked to the point that Mother watches over them with a rifle and Father punishes them for failing in their work, as evidenced at the film’s beginning when Elijah collapses from the work. The collapse is where the line between family and cult begins to blur. When not working, life is all about Etan and praising him over mealtime or chapel.

The Family 2021 Festival Film

The siblings in the movie accept this because it’s all they know and they feel they owe deference to Mother, Father, and Etan. Things take a turn after Caleb crosses the threshold one day, fascinated by what he sees and hears at an old shed just outside the line of animal bones. Caleb is discovered and this sets in motion the rest of the film. Shortly after his trespass, Father brings home a new sister called Mary (Keana Lyn). Mary doesn’t know where she came from and claims she can remember nothing before being brought to the farm by Father. Father proclaims Mary to be the promised betrothed for Caleb by Etan and a wedding soon ensues. Etan has other plans for Mary, though (at least that’s what Father says) and what happens next pushes Caleb to his breaking point. The family will never be the same after; any doubts or illusions that the siblings had about their faith and lives will be tested.

The plot may seem straightforward, but a lot is going on between the lines here. Some might focus on the cult aspect of the film and that is a critical point. Whether a cult, a family, or both….control is clearly important to Mother and Father and the film outright points that out in one scene. Mother and Father are seen by the siblings as literal creators in this film. Aside from the religious fervor, fear, and abuse that clearly put this family in the cult territory, there is an obligation for simply existing, and control naturally follows. A woman holding a rifle at you while you work is clearly at odds with the word ‘Mother.’ The siblings are skeptical of their treatment and circumstance. Still, the very fact that they exist keeps them in line and keeps them believing, and that existence is only through Mother and Father. Suppose there was a life before this family for any of the siblings. In that case, we’ll never know and it’s seriously doubtful that any of the siblings are the product of Mother and Father together in a traditional sense. Any life other than what the siblings have known is foreign and dread.

The Family 2021 Festival Film

Another exciting aspect was the relationship between Father and Mother in what seems to play out in a traditionally patriarchal world of yesteryear. Mother at times openly challenges and undermines Father and is at least equal to Father in influence though methods differ. Without digging into them too much, I’ll also say that the film leaves questions unanswered and it might take place in an alternate universe for all I know when I think about how much I as a viewer don’t know. I prefer questions and I like the open-ended nature of this film and its mythology in the same vein that I appreciated Halloween, The Leftovers, or Prometheus. We rarely have all the answers in real life, so why should the film be any different?

The family was co-written and directed by Dan Slater and I am not familiar with his previous filmography. Still, after seeing The Family, I look forward to hopefully seeing more horror outings from this director. The film’s technical elements are beautifully realized on all counts.

Set in what I can best describe as similar to late 1800s or early 1900’s rural North America, the film’s color palette lives in browns and grays punctuated by muted greens throughout. The depressing nature of the world the characters live in is only emphasized by the film’s palette. Dan Slater, along with Director of Photography Adam Madreyk, capture, frame, and light the scenes beautifully. Dillon Baldassero was responsible for the music and it is terrific. Slightly out-of-tune sounding string arrangements are peppered throughout and they add depth to the more unhinged aspects of the story. The further combining of the music with the diegetic sounds of the world is done tastefully and the two complements each other well throughout. Of similar quality was the production design. The world felt real and lived in. I was not familiar with the acting talent in this film, but all the actors played their parts well. My favorite performance, though came from Jenna Warren as ‘Abigail’. Jenna plays the nuances of her character and the push and pulls of her and her sibling’s condition quite nimbly. A simple look from Abigail’s face at the dinner table is all that was needed to contextualize certain events and their repercussions. And that kind of nuance was all over this film. The nuance of facial expressions and the way a word was delivered were equally, if not more important than what was being said.

The Family 2021 Festival Film

I would definitely recommend The Family for those who don’t mind a slow-burn horror that rewards multiple viewings. One aspect of the ending of the film seems like a big reveal may have been intended. But for any paying attention, it would’ve been clear what was coming very early on, so it loses any potential weight it might have had as a story mechanic. On the other hand, that might not have been the intent behind the scene and either way, it doesn’t materially affect the ending one way or the other.

Overall, The Family was a very well done film and it has a lot to say and it gave me a lot to think about. In a world that’s currently experiencing a folk horror boon with some outstanding films having already been released, that’s impressive.

Check out more of our coverage of the Blood in the Snow film festival!

Written by Palmer Cloud