SXSW 2021: HERE BEFORE Review – Andra Riseborough Chills in Frightening Psychological Thriller

Starring Andrea Riseborough and Jonjo O’Neill

Written by Stacey Gregg

Directed by Stacey Gregg

Synopsis: After new neighbors move in next door, a bereaved mother begins to question her reality in this unsettling psychological thriller.

Dead children are a quotidian, specter-du-jour in horror films. Sometimes they’re menacing little buggers, the kind that wield small scalpels and go after ankles like they’re a baggies of M&Ms. Other times, they’re oblique visages traipsing through the sullen canals of Venice, decked in crimson raincoats that would make even the most steadfast of Mod Squad groupies blush with envy. Whatever their narrative or dynamic purpose– pint-sized portents of dread– they’re often peripheral, gothic dressing to imbue a domestic drama with the formality of a ghost story– faint shades of the supernatural. It’s one of the triumphs of the horror genre writ large, the way it so effortlessly upends convention, rendering the benign frightening, zoning-in on our worst generational anxieties to reveal something grotesque yet restorative.

Here Before is very good– scary good, you might say. The way writer/director Stacey Gregg interrogates the minutiae of grief is so adroitly focused, so knife-sharp, it does more than just creep under the skin– it cuts you open and burrows its way inside. After a disorienting opening credits sequence, a hazy and murky montage of familial bliss, we’re introduced to Laura (Andrea Riseborough), tending to her small garden, a microcosm of Ireland itself, the film’s brooding, overcast and oppressive setting. She’s greeted by Megan (Niamh Dornan), a plucky new neighbor girl, and from the look on Laura’s casuistic face, the audience is primed to immediately suspect the worst. Paranoia and incredulity encroach on Laura’s sunny, manufactured disposition– almost immediately, she begins to suspect that Megan is her deceased daughter reincarnated.

Husband Brendan and (Jonjo O’Neill) and son Tadhg (Lewis McAskie)– convincingly angsty in what little screen time he has– aren’t convinced. Despite Megan’s cryptic utterances and her predilection for speaking in prophetic quatrains like Nostradamus, Brendan and Tadhg insist that it is all in Laura’s head, the swirling maelstrom of grief rearing its ugly head once again. Worse still, in the tract-housing of their suburban Irish suburb, what might be the ghost of their daughter is living right next door– right beyond their walls.

Early reviews have made allusions to Nicholas Roeg’s existential masterpiece Don’t Look Now. In crumbs and grains, that comparison fits. In an overarching sense, Laura is besieged by what she believes to be her dead daughter, though in lieu of timeless Venice, the setting is supplanted for an ever-changing, urban-lite hellscape. In the truest sense of the sentiment, it embodies the notion that the world does not stop for one’s own grief. The best comparison, though, might be Jonathan Glazer’s criminally underrated yuppie nightmare Birth. Andrea Riseborough is a Kidman contemporary, always bold in her choices, never afraid to straddle the line between lo-fi indie and subversive genre trappings.

Filled with a vague sense of discomfort that slowly builds over the course of the proceedings, Gregg keeps the tension mounting steadily while Riseborough– unmatched in her contribution to speculative cinema– ensures they’re grounded. While Megan recounts the memories of Josie’s dead daughter and appears in fractured form, spliced into Larua’s reality in a stunning cinematic technique, Riseborough keeps the emotional core intact. This may be a ghost story, but its one contextualized by the lived-in grief of one singular family.

Like the best mysteries– and make no mistake, Here Before rides the is-this-really-Laura’s-dead-daughter train for as long as it can– the ending, almost by default, is posed to disappoint. Credit must be given for Gregg’s sensible landing, but for audiences fully immersed in the uncanny and slanting, gothic vibes, it’s almost certain induce little more than tepid groans. Here Before was never going to have a bombastic ending, but some sense of thematic finality would have worked. Instead, audiences are left with hazy resolution. The questions are answered, but those answers are considerably less satisfying than the seductive enigma that came before.

Here Before, which had its premiere at this year’s South by Southwest festival, will likely have a tricky road ahead of it. For as frighteningly real and well-crafted as Gregg’s modulated supernatural mystery is, it’s both too low-key for mainstream audiences, yet not quite brazen enough to truly qualify as a breakout, must-see hit. Nonetheless, Gregg’s talents in her debut are undeniable, and Here Before is deeply-unnerving. Whatever its future prospects, it’s always a pleasure to see Riseborough do what she does best, and within Gregg’s canvas, she’s transcendent. You may have seen this haunting before, but its old-school scares have lost little of their luster.

  • Here Before


Here Before, anchored by a transcendent performance from genre veteran Andrea Riseborough, is a frightening and heartrending debut for writer/director Stacey Gregg.

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