Home is where the horror is in Matriarch, Hulu’s latest Huluween offering. Writer/Director Ben Steiner expands on his 2018 short film “Urn,” also available on Hulu, for his feature debut. A strange illness forces a woman to return home to her roots, leading her down a bizarre journey of self-discovery and twisted folk horror. Matriarch bites off a bit more than it can chew with its narrative, but its striking horror imagery sticks with you.
Laura (Jemima Rooper) lives in the city and works in a high-anxiety job as an executive. She struggles to maintain relationships and uses cocaine to cope with her stress. A strange illness and an overdose leave her spiraling in a life-upending way, prompting Laura to accept the invitation of her estranged mother, Celia (Kate Dickie), to return home. But homecoming is anything but healing for Laura. There’s something amiss with the town; the neighbors behave strangely and are sometimes unwelcoming. None of it holds a candle to the increasingly strained and toxic relationship between mother and daughter.
Matriarch introduces its protagonist as a complete mess of an adult, using her present to set up the overarching mystery of her past. More specifically, to raise questions about her estrangement and if her strange, black liquid-oozing illness might be hereditary. Steiner prolongs the answers to these questions as Laura travels home to the rural countryside where a Wicker Man-like folk horror vibe awaits.
Despite a weird conspiracy emerging from the strange happenings and bizarre encounters, Laura doesn’t seem to hurry for answers, either. All of it centers around the volatile estrangement with Celia. Steiner toggles between an ominous supernatural threat and reopening psychological scars from lousy parenting, tossing red herrings or haphazard distractions into the mix to prolong the inevitable. Subplots of former flames or forgotten neighborly grudges add to Laura’s emotionally complex journey home, but most of this fizzles without any clear purpose.
While the plot details can be as murky as the town’s muddy marshes, the atmosphere and horror imagery prove far more effective and concise. A slow folk horror build eventually leads to unexpected and bold body horror. Steiner packs the third act full of gruesome horror, foreboding Pagan acts, and shocking surprises that almost make the wait worth it. Almost.
The visual spectacle of the climax might make the payoff worth the wait for some, but there’s an empty quality to it all. Steiner puts more emphasis on mood and atmosphere, tossing too many elements into Laura’s journey without any satisfying resolutions to most of the ideas introduced. There’s also a disconnect in the abrupt shift from quiet, unsettling folk horror to over-the-top body horror in the finale.
Steiner’s debut is full of ideas and delivers unforgettable moments of horror, but it’s perhaps a bit too ambitious. Dickie and Rooper are fantastic; Dickie’s Celia is a menacing force of nature. But we’re no closer to understanding Laura or her childhood by the story’s end, and, save for the horror, we’re not entirely invested either.
Matriarch is available to stream exclusively on Hulu now.