Sound design is an often under-appreciated characteristic of a film, in any genre. But good sound can make or break a horror film. So let’s begin our appreciation of “Little Joe,” a “horticultural horror” tale from the UK, with a shout out to Matz Müller.
This film, about a plant genetically altered to release a scent “that makes people happy,” but with unforseen consequences (Yeah, right.) is set in labs and sealed greenhouses, around Big Science. And Müller fills the soundtrack with dissonance. It’s a veritable symphony of unnerving high-pitch tones, shrieks, synethesized barks (as in “dog”) and rustling.
Married to chilly, flourescent visuals, it keeps the characters jumpy and the viewer on edge. It’s the creepiest sounding horror tale since “A Quiet Place.”
Emily Beecham of TV’s “Into the Badlands” plays Alice, lead plant geneticist on a new project at her plant lab, gene-editing into existence an “anti-depressant happy plant.” Its scent will improve your mood, and you don’t have to trim its leaves, dry them and roll them up into joint to get the effect.
Ben Whishaw is Chris, who assists her in the lab and in the greenhouse. He’s the one who tells the boss (David Wilmot) that the plant delivers this happiness in return for attention.
“What this plant really needs is love.”
They’ve taken the precuation of rendering the flower, which looks like something you’d see in Dr. Seuss’s evil twin’s garden, sterile. It won’t be able to breed and spread.
Among their colleagues, only Bella (Kerry Fox) sees problems with that. The essence of life, she reminds them all, is “the ability to reproduce, ensuring its own survival.” That plant “will follow its own” agenda, she prophesizes.
Bella has a dog, “Bello,” who comes with her to work. See where this is going?
Alice has an ex she rarely sees (Sebastian Hülk) she rarely sees, a shrink (Lindsay Duncan) she shares her feelings with, and a son (Kit Connor) she treats as an adult, a regular dinner date when she finally comes from from work, with take-out food, to catch up on the day with her latchkey tween.
She thinks Joe could use one of her happy plants. Scientists in science fiction are often this “I know what I’m doing” arrogant. She suggests Joe dote on the plant, talk to it. She names it “Little Joe” in his honor.
Bella, of course, sees the peril in that. Alice is “a good mother,” she notes. But if push comes to shove, “which of your children will you choose?”
What unfolds in Austrian director and co-writer Jessica Hausner’s thriller is more dread than horror, dread with an icy chill about it. The “ticking clock” the story is building up to is “The Big Plant Fair” where they’ll unveil their creation and turn it loose on the world.
“Little Joe” is “Children of the Damned” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” by way of “Little Shop of Horrors.” No, the plants don’t sing. But if you talk to them…
The violence is mild, by modern cinema standards. But when it comes, it shocks. Mildly.
Whishaw suggests devotion to the point of menacing, with aplomb. And Beecham gets across Alice’s conflict — the arrogant scientist who realizes the cost of “playing God” — with skill.
It’s a mood piece, and the element that ensures that it comes off is Matz Müller’s brittle, unsettling soundtrack. The characters may debate the morality of their behavior in dialogue, but it is the soundtrack that matches their actions — violent, reckless and disharmonious to the end.
MPAA Rating: unrated, some violence
Cast: Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox, David Milmot and Kit Connor and Lindsay Duncan.
Credits: Directed by Jessica Hausner, script by Géraldine Bajard, Jessica Hausner. A Magnolia release.
Running time: 1:45