Quietly unnerving horror movie offers subtle, scary rewards

If Ingmar Bergman had mounted a production of LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, it might feel something like co-writer/director’s bizarre and dreamlike anti-horror horror movie LITTLE JOE. Out now on DVD from Magnolia Home Entertainment, the film is bound to isolate general horror fans looking for a quick thrill but is almost guaranteed an enduring cult following from genre obsessives who prefer to be challenged and frustrated by their cinema. And if nothing else, LITTLE JOE is indeed designed to challenge and frustrate but it also offers subtle rewards and ample pleasures for those willing to navigate its austere weirdness.

Emily Beecham (who won the best actress award at Cannes) stars as Alice, a botanist working for a British company experimenting in new breeds of consumer plant life. She and her partner Chris (Ben Whishaw) have created a pretty and oddly emotional plan that Alice nicknames “Little Joe” after her son Joe who is light of her life. Said plant apparently releases a pollen that makes its owner bond with the sprout in the same ways in which parents chemically connect with their children. “Little Joe” feeds on human contact, on conversation and kindness and in turn, releases a hormone that makes its “parent” happy. Although explicitly instructed not to do so, Alice brings one of the plants home for her son as a gift. Everything seems fine at first, but slowly, surely, her boy begins acting strangely, removing himself from her and suggesting he’d rather live with his father. Alice begins to suspect that her “Little Joe” might not be quite as benign as she had intended, and when the plants begin releasing their pollen to staff in the lab, she wonders if she has in fact created a monster.

Moving at a slow, measured pace and keeping its INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS horror largely ambiguous, LITTLE JOE most reminded me in tone to Robin Campillo’s masterful french film LES REVENANTS (aka THEY CAME BACK) in that every thing you expect a “normal” genre film to do, it betrays, refusing to show its hand and leaving you with many more questions than answers. Beecham is fantastic and her look – pale skin, thick red hair – masterfully blends into the visual world Hausner and her team work so hard to create. Beecham’s Alice looks like one the Little Joe plants in some respects and their dashes of red against a largely antiseptic white sets and costumes, make for an hypnotic viewing experience. The woozy, often atonal and always minimalist score (stitched together by classic tracks from Japanese composer Teiji Ito) helps further create a feel of dread, of the “alien” and the “other”, which is essential to both Alice’s relationship with her near-teenage son and the potentially insidious, hive-mind agenda of the plant itself. Whishaw is also great as the lovelorn co-worked who succumbs to Little Joe’s influence, or does he? Hausner refuses to answer this and the film is much better for it.

LITTLE JOE is the kind of film you sort of feel yourself getting lost in. Bereft of any sort of sex, violence or frissons, the almost experimental film goes to work on your head and as such, will likely stick with you and haunt you for days to come. Recommended.