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VIVARIUM and the Horrors of Suburbia Provide a Bleak Outlook on the American Dream

Savannah Chess says Lorcan Finnegan splits from typical suburban horror to bring us a film more focused on psychological scares and societal pressures.

A still of the community of Yonder in VIVARIUM (2019) directed by Lorcan Finnegan.
An aerial view of Yonder overlooking Tom and Gemma's house in Vivarium (2019)

Trapped somewhere between heaven and hell, Lorcan Finnegan’s science fiction thriller Vivarium brings a fresh perspective to suburban horror. A popular backdrop for horror films, the suburbs have become a common setting for masked killers and supernatural entities to take hold. However, writers Finnegan and Garret Shanley chose to take a different route, instead casting villains aside for the very real horrors of settling down in manufactured communities. The film doesn’t hold back on its obvious disdain for suburbia, children, settling down, and the mundanity of it all. Once the American dream, a land of picket fences, pristinely mown grass, and a cookie-cutter spread of houses as far as the eye can see, is now recognized by younger generations as the death of creativity and all things enjoyable.

Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots star as the happily unmarried couple, Tom and Gemma. Looking to be homeowners, the two find themselves in a peculiar situation when an unnerving salesman named Marvin (Jonathan Aris) brings them to a sprawling community of eerily identical homes. As the couple meanders through the rooms of model home nine, they return to the kitchen, planning to reconvene with Marvin, but Marvin has suddenly disappeared. They soon realize that the community they’ve been abandoned in serves more as a labyrinth of endless monopoly-like homes with no end in sight. No matter how much they drive around the soulless community, walk the untouched sidewalks, or climb the fences following the sun as their guide, they always find themselves right back where they started, on the porch of house number nine. Forced to make this model home theirs for the foreseeable future, the two are also gifted an alien creature resembling a human child (Senan Jennings) that they are instructed to raise in return for release.

This film portrays picket fences, pristine yards, endless blue skies, and a nuclear family home. It presents the American dream and all its misery. Finnegan dives into divisions both physically and socially as Tom and Gemma settle into their “forever home.” Tom, the once gardener, and Gemma, the ex-kindergarten teacher, now take on these same roles in their own personal purgatory. Despite the child’s unnatural mannerisms, incessant screaming until his breakfast is served, and constant need to have eyes on the couple, Gemma’s maternal instinct kicks in. Fighting every bone in her body, Gemma’s natural inclination to care for the rapidly growing alien child takes over as she caters to his every whim, even tucking him into bed at night. Tom, on the other hand, loathes the child-like creature that has latched onto their lives like a diabolical parasite. Instead, he spends night and day doing what he does best, digging. From sunrise to sundown, Tom won’t stop digging his hole as he holds out hope that he’ll find a way out of their utopian prison.

Jesse Eisenberg as Tom and Imogen Poots as Gemma in VIVARIUM (2019) directed by Lorcan Finnegan.
Tom and Gemma have a humorous encounter with the Child in Vivarium (2019)

A taboo topic that holds truth, Finnegan shows the divisive qualities that an unwanted child can present to otherwise successful relationships. As women are more prone to take the nurturing role, men can escape responsibilities with the excuse of focusing their efforts on jobs they are better suited for or, in Tom’s circumstance, physical labor. Even the home itself takes on gendered labels, as the kitchen becomes a female space and the front yard a male one. The film takes a direct look at women's implicit expectations as a mother and the humdrum existence within the domestic routine.

Finnegan’s obvious contempt for children is apparent throughout the film, but it truly pulls no punches as the final scenes play out. Many films depict the hardships of raising children and most come to the wholesome conclusion that it was all worth it. Children grow up to become successful adults who show appreciation to their parents for helping them become who they are, but Finnegan opts for a much darker take on the vexation of parenthood. The child Tom and Gemma must raise gives them hell, and eventually ends up sucking the life out of them — literally. Exhausted from their experience as parents, Tom and Gemma fall ill and die, leaving their now grown alien-child (Éanna Hardwicke) to place them in body bags, vacuum the air out, and dispose of them. Finnegan draws attention to the taboo topic that kids are not always the miracle they're often claimed to be. Due to societal pressures, even those opposed to having children eventually feel required to participate when the opportunity presents itself, thus Tom and Gemma never fight against it, instead raising the child due to their evident lack of alternative choices.

The film opens with a grisly scene of a cuckoo bird laying its eggs in another bird’s nest. This hatchling then pushes the host’s chicks out, causing them to fall toward a gruesome death, as is customary for the common cuckoo species. Used as a metaphor for the capitalist housing system, this scene foreshadows the home invasion that Tom and Gemma will soon face. Finnegan’s blue-green neighborhood of dull homes references the residential sprawl of uninhabited row houses that resulted from the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. As prices were too high for the vast majority of Americans struggling through a recession, these communities became empty neighborhoods of identical homes, like that of the one Tom and Gemma find themselves trapped inside. The film plays on the false dream of homeownership that Gemma and many others hold. These cheaply made, mass-produced homes present a mis-sold notion of comfort and prosperity. But Tom and Gemma only prove that this lifestyle has a killer hidden cost.

Imogen Poots and Senan Jennings in VIVARIUM (2019) directed by Lorcan Finnegan.
Gemma and the child lay in the yard looking up at the sky in Vivarium (2019)

The worst part of all, this nightmarish housing situation is one that we seek out. With property remaining unaffordable and extremely inflated, people turn to a mortgage to fulfill their homeownership dream. But with this mortgage comes decades of loans, putting an unsuspected strain on families. Forced to work jobs that they hate to pay off loans and feed their families, life becomes an endless cycle of waking up, eating, working, sleeping, and repeating under capitalism, a routine that’s not so different from Tom and Gemmas. The horrors of home ownership within this film focus on the growing frustration with the current housing market and its inaccessibility to those unwilling to pay the ultimate price.

The horror genre has been picking on the suburbs for years, as it brings scares to communities deemed the safest in the country. When we see serial killers reign terror on populous cities or remote cabins housing satanic cults, we find these locations somewhat responsible for the horrors that unfold, but when gated communities within the sprawl of middle America are faced with dangers of their own, we come to realize that no place is safe from these villains. From The Stepford Wives (1975) to Halloween (1979), and The ‘Burbs (1989), it's obvious Hollywood has a vendetta towards the suburbs. Finnegan’s take on the suburban horror genre is refreshing, pulling in deeper themes that will cause audiences to think a lot harder than Claire Wellington, Michael Meyers, or Werner Klopek ever could.

Touching on the hardships of parenthood, relationships, and economic inequality while wrapping it all into a beautifully photographed and captivating home invasion film, Finnegan shows true artistry as a director. Perfectly encapsulating how so many young Americans feel, the film proves that the equality of opportunity is a hoax in a country with extensive wealth disparity and individuals obstinate to diversity. Vivarium traps you inside the very real horrors of the American suburbs, taking you on a thrilling ride of fun and wits.


Savannah Chess is an Austin-based writer and recent graduate from Texas A&M University where she studied Journalism, English, and Business. She enjoys watching horror movies, reading, traveling, and spending time with her Texas Heeler, Astrid.


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