Hatching: a primal horror fairytale

Folding deadpan humour and coming-of-age tropes into its unnerving narrative, Hanna Bergholm’s feature debut is a distinctive mother-daughter horror.

Siiri Solalinna as Alli in Hatching (2022)

Hanna Bergholm’s feature debut is one of several recent horror films by female directors that focus on the intense bond between mothers and daughters; prominent examples include Natalie Erika James’ Relic (2020), Ruth Paxton’s A Banquet (2021) and Kate Dolan’s You Are Not My Mother (2021). It’s a primal relationship ripe with potential for existential as well as body horror.

Bergholm and her screenwriter, Ilja Rautsi, approach this central theme as a dark fairytale, with a biological Mother (as she is named in the English-language credits) filling the role of a Wicked Stepmother. Mother has robbed her daughter, Tinja, of her youth and identity by exploiting her as a vessel for her own thwarted ambitions as an ice skater, alluded to in framed photographs and a briefly glimpsed scar. The storied parallels are further hinted at in floral wallpaper that stifles rather than prettifies; a corvid that bursts into the family’s pristine home and wreaks glass-smashing havoc before Mother snaps its neck with unnerving coldness; and Tinja’s dreamlike nocturnal incursion into the forest, where she mimics Mother’s actions by administering the coup de grâce to a wounded bird (possibly the corvid resurrected) before finding its mysterious egg and embarking on her own grotesque iteration of the warped mother-daughter relationship.

Alli, as Tinja names the hatchling, develops from a shrieking animatronic puppet reminiscent of the fearsome Skeksis from Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal (1982) into Tinja’s doppelgänger, distinguishable only by its unnatural movements and death’s-head rictus as it acts out its caretaker’s transgressive wishes, sometimes while Tinja herself is having a seizure. Alli’s depredations evolve from shredding a leotard (a gift from Mother) to killing the dog whose barking disrupts the girl’s sleep, and then to stalking and maiming a rival who looks set to replace Tinja on the gymnastics team. By refusing to explain how Tinja can be in two places at once, Bergholm inserts enough ambiguity into the psychic link between girl and creature to keep the viewer unsure as to whether the alter ego has an independent existence or is all in her head.

The filmmakers fold coming-of-age tropes into their scenario, including allusions to eating disorders, with the symbiotic bond between Tinja and Alli sealed by exchanges of blood, saliva, and regurgitated bird seed. Tinja’s baffled classmates think she’s “weird” but never quite resort to outright bullying, and her milquetoast father dismally fails to safeguard his daughter’s interests, though unwittingly provides the film with one of its grim comic highlights when he backs off in embarrassment, assuming the bloodstains on the sheets as Tinja tries to hide a decapitated dog are signs that she is menstruating. Meanwhile, we’re encouraged to fear for the safety of the fourth member of the family, Tinja’s bratty younger brother, driven to spiteful behaviour and bedwetting by Mother’s neglect and his resentment of the sister who gets all the attention.

There is additional deadpan humour at the expense of Finland’s progressive ecological agenda – after snapping the bird’s neck, Tinja is told by Mother to dispose of it in the organic recycling bin – and an acerbic critique of the hypocrisy of the influencer lifestyle, in which Mother sees no contradiction between the happy family façade she presents on social media and the entitled way she brazenly conducts an extra-marital affair, blind to the pain it causes her daughter. Given the feeble nature of the husband, who weakly attempts to justify his passivity, the film’s most emotionally grounded character is in fact Mother’s lover, a widowed handyman who sees all too clearly the mental havoc the woman is wreaking on Tinja’s psyche and seems poised to help – until the doppelgänger menaces his baby son, upon which he repudiates both mother and daughter. Mother, naturally, blames Tinja for ruining her love life.

With the help of a remarkable double performance from her young leading actress (Siiri Solalinna as both Tinja and her doppelgänger), Bergholm builds a heartbreaking portrait of an adolescent sacrificing her own needs in a desperate effort to please a mother as monstrous as the hatchling. Their dynamic echoes the mother-daughter relationship in Carrie (1976), but with at least one additional psychic twist: given Mother and Alli’s scimitar-like fingernails and, at one point, blood-smeared faces, one begins to suspect that the hatchling is a projection of Mother’s desires as much as Tinja’s, the misdeeds of the parent mutating into ever more grotesque variants as they pass through the generations.

► Hatching is in UK cinemas now.