Director: John Lee
Writer: Ilana Glazer and John Lee (screenplay); Ilana Glazer, John Lee, and Alissa Nutting (story)
Starring: Ilana Glazer, Justin Theroux, Pierce Brosnan, Gretchen Mol, Sophia Bush, Zainab Shah
As an OG Alissa Nutting(Tampa, Made for Love) fangirl, I was primed to love Hulu’s latest original horror feature, False Positive. Streaming as of Friday 6/25/21, False Positive’s core story is a joint effort from director John Lee (Neon Joe: Werewolf Hunter, Delocated), star Ilana Glazer (Broad City, Rough Night), and Nutting–and has the talky, real-world visual style and plot to match its post-feminist creators. However, despite slick looks and an A-list cast, it’s ultimately topical but try-hard.
Like Netflix’s I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (2016), I think I would’ve preferred False Positive as short fiction. Its literary roots are undeniable; as mildly Boss Bitchy Lucy, Glazer calls to mind Cassandra, the unnamed narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Paula of Gas Light, and any other mistreated, disbelieved gothic heroine you care to name. Peter Pan, somewhat incoherently, is the movie’s in-universe touchpoint. But its horror antecedents are murkier.
Haunted pregnancy calls echoing back to Rosemary’s Baby (on that note, what does it mean when a film created by a sexual predator is still our cultural go-to for women-centered horror?) Certain cinematography decisions are reminiscent of both versions of Suspiria. Still, Lee fails to either recapture the notes of these stone-cold classics or deliver a memorable original style of his own. A couple of moments, such as Justin Theroux’s Adrian furtively narcing on his wife as the shot shrinks and fades into Lucy’s pendant necklace, seem to telegraph thematic significance but actually dead-end (what’s with that necklace? Nothing, apparently!). And the plot itself hews too close to reality to be termed effective horror.
RIPPED FROM THE HEADLINES
Lucy and Adrian’s attempts to have a baby the old-fashioned way will be familiar to many viewers. The history of institutional abuse of feminized bodies–lampshaded here by a dissonant montage of real photographs–is a stain on medicine and a continuing issue in so-called modern societies. Midwifery and male-dominated medicine at odds is an age-old story (and one that often undergirds witchcraft stories). Masculinized dominance over feminized bodies within intimate, professional, and medical relationships is an everyday occurrence. But False Positive‘s occasional descent into weird visual morphs, unstable reality, and blood spatters can’t pull enough weight to position the film’s horror as anything other than reporting the facts. It’s simply not scary; if I want to feel dread about how white men in positions of power treat me, I’ll open Twitter.
Lucy’s unreliable-narrator status badly undercuts the film’s apparent intentions: interrogating via a horror lens how pregnant people are treated in the workplace, by their partners, and by their doctors. “Mommy brain” became the sole commentary of my friends and me as we watched because the phrase itself is increasingly ridiculous.
The film demands viewers #BelieveLucy, but although we know something is up with Dr. John Hindle (a gleefully gross Pierce Brosnan), Lucy’s actual sanity is always in question. The penultimate shocker of Lucy offering her twin sons up to the sky through the nursery window, not to mention the closing shot of her aborted daughter latching onto a breast, is drained of impact. By the film’s close, we have no faith in Lucy’s narration. We have no real proof that she actually walked into Hindle’s office to beat the shit out of him. We have instead a hodgepodge of visual cues that her subjectivity is not to be trusted. One outstanding example: the clumsy reveal that Zainab Shah’s midwife character is not a horrible Magical Negro stereotype.
ALL TALK, NO ACTION
The film has something to say about the uncanny awful of Gretchen Mol as Hindle’s chief nurse. (Yes, white women will always uphold and enforce white supremacy, including eugenics). It veers toward intriguing commentary on male mentorships when Lucy’s fever dream envisions Adrian having an affair with Hindle. But these pieces aren’t enough to carry the movie as it moves in conflicting directions. What the nurses signify is too familiar to be effectively horrifying. Adrian going down on Hindle reads as homophobic rather than incisive. Lagging behind current conversations about reproductive rights and relying on tedious gender binaries, False Positive doesn’t have much to add to the feminist-horror canon.