- review by Ellis Reed
Onus is the second feature by Wiltshire-based auteur Alex Secker, whose début was the post-apocalyptic thriller Follow the Crows (2018). With his new film, he tries his hand at a wholly different genre, serving up a lean folk horror with shades of Get Out. The result is an unusual but entertaining film, bolstered by fine performances, good cinematography and a genre-subverting final act.
Trainee nurse Anna (Daniella Faircloth) accompanies her privileged girlfriend Izzy (Erin Leighton) to the stately country home where the latter grew up. Their class differences are thrown into sharp relief when a maid called Lucy (Shaniece Williams) answers the door. Izzy coldly informs her that the bags are in the car, while Anna—mortified—insists on helping her fetch them.
After the scene with the maid, we meet Izzy’s brother Vincent (Alex Pitcher). He’s painted with very broad strokes and could almost be a character from an Agatha Christie play, but Pitcher embraces the spirit of the role and gives a very enjoyable performance, carrying his newspaper around and swigging from a silver hip flask. Mother Elizabeth (Karen Payne) is haughty with shades of nouveau riche. When she isn’t being awful to Lucy, or threatening her adult children with etiquette classes, she’s showering Anna with impeccable (if somewhat mannered) bonhomie.
During these early scenes, we get hints of the folk horror to come. In his first scene, Vincent comes across Anna as she studies a framed picture of a tree-demon—a “local deity”—and explains that their father (played by Tony Manders) has a peculiar attachment to it. The man in question is absent from introductions because he’s bedridden with ill health. Anna is surprised to learn that he keeps his bedroom door locked at all times, ringing a bell if he needs anything. Even weirder, the family don’t have a sensible explanation for his condition, and Anna—being a healthcare professional—sees their hopeless ad-libbing for what it is.
Based on this setup, and the description of the film as ‘folk horror’, you might be forgiven for thinking that Onus is treading a well-worn path. It’s certainly true that a synopsis of the whole plot would invite comparisons to Get Out, although the films aren’t as similar as you might expect. (Lucy is black, but the social horror of Onus comes from class rather than race). However, the cinematography is good and really makes the location shine. As the two leads, Faircloth and Leighton give a pair of very solid, natural-seeming performances, carrying our interest through the slow-burn sections of the story.
Also, the treatment of the folk-horror concept is quite novel. Although the key events proceed as you might expect, the muted finale subverts genre expectations and leaves us with much to ponder. It’s hard to go into detail without giving spoilers, but the last twenty minutes give a unique perspective on a familiar payoff, which made the antagonists more interesting and gave me lots to think about.
In a sense, the ending of the film is a bit of a double-edged sword, because it’s a big part of what distinguishes the film from similar fare—but it’s also bound to infuriate some viewers (one IMDb user complained that it “raises more questions than a Chinese manual for a French toaster”!). However, if you’re happy to turn it over in your mind once the credits stop rolling, you’re likely to find the movie an hour-and-a-half well spent. Onus is a well-crafted, visually appealing film that holds the viewer’s attention and would make an excellent discussion piece to watch with a friend.