Halloween – or Samhain, as it is spoken in the small-town Ireland of Kate Dolan’s stellar debut – is a time of change; a marker of the shift from summer to winter, the light to the dark. It’s also when, according to local folklore, the veil between our world, and the Otherworld, the realm of deities – and the dead – is at its thinnest. When, as horror dictates, we are most at threat, not just from sinister spiritual forces, but ourselves too. And it’s in this multi-layered approach to genre; the deeply personal overlaid with the fantastical, that Dolan’s first feature stands out as a truly powerful piece of horror storytelling.
Set on the greying streets of a suburban housing estate, on the outermost edges of Dublin (where the industrial meets the rural), You Are Not My Mother follows struggling teen Char (Hazel Doupe) in the week leading up to Samhain, as her mother (Carolyn Bracken) vanishes from the family home, only to return suddenly out of nowhere, behaving rather bizarrely. What first comes across as a purely psychological problem starts to unwind into the unexplainable, and Char is forced to face up to her family’s hidden history, unearthing hideous secrets of the occult and other things her teenage mind isn’t yet ready to reckon with.
Like all the very best horror in this space, subtext is queen, and Char’s story – a coming-of-age wrapped in a family drama, sprinkled with the supernatural – runs incredibly deep. And with Char’s grandmother overseeing all as the matriarch of the piece too, Dolan not only marries the mental with the mystical here, but very much crafts a multi-generational story of women facing up to their legacies, similar in vein to Natalie Erika James’s 2020 Aussie chiller Relic.
But where YANMM diverts for the better, is in keeping its focus to the youngest of the family. The way Dolan folds hurried whispers of folklore in among Char’s struggles with womanhood, and the build up to Halloween as an almost countdown-to-annihilation/emancipation, echoes shades of Donnie Darko, with a realist twist. And much like Gyllenhaal back in 2001, Doupe is an outstandingly volatile lead, a rare young performer who masters the wobbly, stoney-faced unease of adolescence, whilst still giving the film the emotional backbone it needs. YANMM can be a hard watch, and just as much of that comes from Doupe’s vulnerability as it does Dolan’s scares.
Though the scares are plentiful, it must be said. And not quite in the way many might be expecting. You Are Not My Mother is far from a jumpy film, choosing instead to sew its scares right down deep. This is far more Hereditary than it is Blumhouse, with Dolan’s weapon of choice being not a hammer but a corkscrew, building huge waves of tension, which she twists and twists and twists, drawing out the terror in long gasping guffaws over the short jumps or fake-outs the genre now seems most known for.
There might be sharp flashes of nightmare fuel here and there (shot in a terrifying haze by cinematographer Narayan Van Maele, and marked boldly by Die Hexen’s beautifully uneasy score), but what really gets under your skin are those drawn-out moments. Like Bracken, mid-dance sequence, contorting herself into more animal than woman, a set piece that’s dominated the film’s marketing but has to be seen to be believed in its uncut form; a perfectly hair-raising piece of performance that Dolan and her team deliver brilliantly.
There are many different layers to You Are Not My Mother’s storytelling; it’s a film that different audiences will take different things from, but no matter your background, it will linger, and it will haunt, long after those credits have rolled. It’s also a film which will hopefully be returned to and celebrated for years to come – a testament to Kate Dolan’s skill as a fully-fledged horror director who clearly adores the genre, too. YANMM is not just one of the most impactful debuts of recent years, but one of the most chilling and thoughtful homegrown horrors full-stop. A remarkable piece of work.