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- Reviewed from the 2023 Sundance Film Festival
The Sundance Film Festival has long been at the cutting edge of horror cinema. The genre was forever changed, or at the very least immeasurably enriched, by the world premieres at Sundance of The Blair Witch Project (1999), The Witch (2015), Get Out (2017) and Hereditary (2018); the Festival’s Midnight line-up this year, at a time when the genre itself often seems torn between ‘elevated’ fare and slasher revivals, could be a roadmap of where horror’s future may lie.
Run Rabbit Run, screening as part of said line-up, comes with impressive credentials from some of television’s finest. It is directed by Daina Reid, who was behind some of the strongest episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale (2017-) and Shining Girls (2022-), and stars Sarah Snook, best known as the sharp-witted and even sharper-suited Shiv Roy in Succession (2018-); it had already secured a meaty Netflix deal ahead of its premiere on Thursday. But unlike the best of Sundance’s Midnight fare, it replicates rather than innovates within the genre, delivering a familiar tale of a mother driven to the brink by grief and trauma, and unsurprisingly never making it entirely clear if the horrors that manifest are supernatural or the product of her shattered psyche.
Snook, in her native Australian accent, plunges into the role of Sarah, a divorced fertility doctor living with her seven-year-old daughter Mia (an excellent Lily LaTorre) in a stylish suburban home. But cracks soon begin to appear: Mia feels haunted by the death of her grandfather; Sarah begins having unsettling reactions to Mia’s three-year-old half-brother’s roughhousing and her own mother’s dementia diagnosis; and a series of animals, apparently connected to Sarah’s long-buried past, ominously make their appearance.
An ill-advised trip to her rural childhood home threatens to tear out the remaining vestiges of Sarah’s sanity. There are a few impressively dark moments in this final act, and hints of a far more interesting film that might have been told from Mia’s point of view. But Reid’s steadfast commitment to ambiguity means that it’s never established who or what should be feared – only that Snook’s dramatic range shouldn’t be underestimated.
For those not particularly steeped in the horror highlights of the past decade, Run Rabbit Run may make for a worthwhile watch; the direction, script and sun-dappled camerawork are all competent, bordering on elegant. But for genre fans, every beat is so familiar that the film feels like the ungodly creation of an AI that was tasked with blending Repulsion (1965), The Babadook (2014), Relic (2020), Hereditary and even last year’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner Nanny. It is also susceptible to some of the less exciting instincts of ‘elevated’ horror, wherein juicy genre elements play second fiddle to fairly conventional dramatic arcs, and character development gets in the way of the in-depth exploration of an interesting concept. In Run Rabbit Run, even the occasional jump-scares seem to exist out of contractual obligation rather than profound engagement with the genre’s cinematic potential. Creatively nasty moments are hinted at, such as rooms in Sarah’s childhood home filled with items that resemble medieval torture devices, but this horror film appears almost too embarrassed to debase itself by including anything approaching a horrifying moment.
All in all, it’s a depressingly squandered opportunity – not only for the underutilised talent before and behind the camera, but for Sundance’s Midnight strand, which should be at the vanguard of horror, not peering through the rearview mirror.