Morris County is billed as a horror anthology. And it is. I suppose. There’s three separate stories and all three are horrifying. But soul-sucking drama and a script grounded in grim reality is not something you’d expect from the usually fun and hammy genre.
USA, 2009, Matthew Garrett
Though it becomes clear where the story is heading, to reveal any more of the plot would ruin its impact. Ellie’s story is perhaps the weakest of the anthology, but it does a good job in introducing the tone of Morris County, which sits somewhere between Michael Haneke and Jörg Buttgereit. Besides its overpoweringly grim atmosphere, what struck me almost straight away was how good the cast is. The performances, even smaller roles, are uniformly good — very much uncharacteristic for a low budget feature. Similarly, director Matthew Garrett and crew show restraint behind the camera and never betray the style and pace established in the first story.
The second story opens with a young Jewish boy, Joshua (Robert Peters), stuffing a glass jar full with live mice. His dad, Noah (Albie Selznick), interrupts his son’s casual animal torture with a knock on his door, asking him if he’s ready to go to synagogue. His wife, Rachel (Maren Perry), is also behind closed doors. This it the icy cold world of the Rubin family.
We learn that Noah and Rachel, despite sharing a house, are no longer living as husband and wife. Rachel is having an affair with Benjamin (Peter Ganim). But, as with the first story, not all is as it seems, and we soon learn there is more than just an extramarital affair at work. The middle class life the Rubin family presents hides Noah’s repressed sexual urges, which begin innocently enough with lurking around the porn section of the local video store but degenerate into violence.
I found the Rubin family’s story deeply unsettling. It’s a true nightmare, revealing a dark side to middle class suburbia and obsessions with appearances that I’m sure all us fellow suburbanites have brushed up against at some point in our lives. Albie Selznick delivers the best performance of the film. Noah’s breaking point could have been disastrous in the hands of a lesser actor, but Selznick makes for a sympathetic lead right up until the story’s sickening end.
The third and final story centres on Iris (Alice Cannon). Iris, a loopy but well-meaning older lady, has been made redundant at her workplace. A new computer system is being brought in, and the company wants someone younger to tackle the task. Iris heads home, dejected but pleased to spend the night watching awful reality television with her husband Elmer (Erik Frandsen). Elmer speaks entirely in one word replies.
Iris wakes up the next morning in bed to find Elmer is not next to her. She finds him in the living room — dead with the television still flickering in front of him. Instead of making a call to 911, Iris begins to talk to her deceased husband as if he is still alive. His body rots. Worms crawl out of his ears and nose. Iris casually sprays deodoriser around his corpse.
An apt conclusion to Morris County, Iris’s story made my skin crawl. Iris is extraordinarily likeable, and seeing her suffer with a deluded smile on her face is difficult viewing. Erik Frandsen also deserves credit as Elmer. Before he is replaced with a slimy prosthetic, he plays dead incredibly well. The film wraps on a sad and affecting note that left me appropriately depressed.
Matthew Garrett and his cast and crew deserve a shitload of pats on the back for what they pulled off with Morris County. Most films of this budget and genre are failures, but Garrett stays true to his themes and dreary suburban atmosphere. It’s so, so satisfying to bask in its slow and considered shots. The camera tracks and pans in a fluid, steady motion. Never is story interrupted by chaotic editing, nor are performances hampered by unnecessary shaky camera movements.
Similarly, Garrett’s script shows a maturity that is generally unseen in a first feature. Rather than going for shocks, Morris County has a longer lasting unnerving emotional resonance. Like a Haneke film, when the end credits roll, you’re left feeling like a little part of you has just died. I’d imagine that Morris County may frustrate those seeking a hammy anthology flick, but those who give it a chance will likely be rewarded.
Morris County is available on DVD for pre-order from distribution heroes, Unearthed Films. I’m looking forward to adding this to my shelf!