April 17, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Matthew Whedon and Andrew Mecham
Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the horror film “Behind You” has an almost all-white cast (except for an Indian American with a small speaking role) portraying middle-class characters battling a demonic spirit in a haunted house.
Culture Clash: Two underage sisters end up living with their mysterious aunt, who owns the haunted house, and they have conflicts with their aunt over how to deal with the terrifying presence in the home.
Culture Audience: “Behind You” will appeal mostly to people who like suspenseful and fairly predictable stories about a demonic spirit inflicting terror upon people.
The horror flick “Behind You” takes the frequently used “haunted house” concept and brings some thrilling moments to the subgenre, even though the movie ends up being very predictable and kind of messy in the final third of the movie. However, there are some genuinely frightful jump scares throughout the film, which is elevated by the believable acting from the movie’s cast members.
“Behind You,” which takes places in an unnamed U.S. city, begins with a flashback to 1979, when a 16-year-old girl and her boyfriend are reading a scary bedtime story to the girl’s younger sister, Angela, who is about 7 or 8 years old. The story being read to the girl mentions the Jabberwock, Lewis Carroll’s mythical demon creature that was part of Carroll’s 1871 novel “Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There.” If people don’t know anything about “Behind You” before seeing the film, this reference to the Jabberwock is the movie’s first foreshadowing that mirrors will play a big role in the story.
The story reading ends when Angela is told that it’s time for her to go to sleep. However, Angela is afraid to go to the bathroom by herself. Her older sister tells her, “People don’t really go through mirrors.”
Fast forward to 2019. Two blonde sisters who look very similar to the blonde sisters from 1979 are being driven in a car to a destination where they don’t necessarily want to go. (For whatever reason, all of the women and girls in this movie are blonde.) The two sisters in the car are in the same age range as the sisters from 1979. They are teenage Olivia (played by Addy Miller) and her younger sister Claire (played by Elizabeth Birkner), whose divorced mother Rachel has recently died.
Because Olivia and Claire’s estranged father cannot be located, the sisters are being taken to the home of their only other living relative: a recluse named Beth Molnar (played by Jan Boberg), who is Rachel’s older sister. Rachel’s friend/co-worker Camilla Clark (played by Aimee Lynn Chadwick) is driving the sisters to their aunt Beth’s home, which is everything you would expect from a place that turns out to be a haunted house.
As soon as they arrive, they are greeted by a middle-aged neighbor named Charles (played by Philip Brodie), who tells them that he’s a friend of Beth’s who helps her out a lot. The sisters are reluctant to live with someone they’ve never met before, but Camilla assures them as she looks at the house, “This doesn’t look so bad, does it?”
Meeting their aunt Beth for the first time turns out to be an uncomfortable experience for Olivia and Claire. As soon as Beth sees her nieces, she looks slightly horrified and tells Camilla coldly, “I don’t want them here.” However, Camilla has no choice but to leave the sisters there, because Camilla doesn’t have legal rights to keep the children.
Of course, since viewers have already seen in the flashback how much Olivia and Claire look like the sisters from 1979, it’s pretty easy to figure out that Beth was the older teenage sister, based on the timeline and the age Beth seems to be at now. It explains Beth’s reaction and why she might not want flashbacks to what something awful that happened in that house in 1979.
And if it isn’t made clear enough that there’s something terrifying about the house, Beth immediately sets rules for Olivia and Claire. She tells them that they’re not allowed to wander around the house at night. And under no circumstances are they allowed to go into Beth’s study or in the locked basement. Beth also warns the sisters that if they hear things at night, it’s either the old house making noises or it’s because Beth is sleepwalking.
It’s during this tension-filled first meeting that Beth and viewers see that Claire will not speak to strangers directly, as a result of the trauma of her mother’s death. (How Rachel died is not mentioned in the movie.) Instead, Claire will only speak to a stuffed animal (a white bunny rabbit), which she has named Lucy B.
Beth’s reaction is one of disgust. She comments about Claire’s habit of speaking to the stuffed animal: “It’s a sign of weakness, and weakness is not good.” Claire and Olivia look hurt by Beth’s harsh words, but they have no choice but to live with this unpleasant aunt who doesn’t really want them there.
In the dark and foreboding house, Charles cooks the dinner that they have during the sisters’ first meal with Beth. It’s during this dinner that Charles gives Beth a book with “necromancy” in its title. It’s the first time that Beth cracks a smile because she’s pleased that Charles has found the book for her. When Olivia asks what the book is about, Charles tells her that it’s about “history.”
During the dinner, which Charles says is “African stew,” Claire has a health scare when she suddenly starts choking and she passes out. Olivia immediately runs to her belongings and brings back a hypodermic needle, which she injects in Claire, who comes back to consciousness. Olivia says that Claire is allergic to peanuts. She asks if the stew’s ingredients included peanuts, and an apologetic Charles admits that it does.
It isn’t long before Olivia and Claire (who share a bed) find out there are more terrifying things that can happen to them in the house than an allergic reaction to peanuts. But before all the mayhem starts, Olivia gets the first sign that the place is haunted in the sisters’ first night at the house, when she goes into the bedroom’s bathroom and sees that the bathroom mirror is covered in wallpaper.
Of course, she tears some of the wallpaper off and sees, to her horror, that the mirror shows a reflection of a decomposed body of a girl in the bathtub behind Olivia. When Olivia turns around, the body isn’t there, but the frightful vision is enough for Olivia to get freaked out and run back to her bed.
Then, Claire wakes up to hear her toy bunny rabbit Lucy B. whispering to her. It sounds like a child’s voice that’s overdubbed in layers with echoes, and the voice effects are some of the creepiest and scariest parts of the movie. The voice tells Claire that she needs to go to the forbidden basement. But first, the voice tells Claire that she has to get the key to the basement lock from Beth’s study. (And Beth happens to be in the study, but she’s asleep.)
The voice also tells Claire that she can see her mother again if she follows these instructions. What follows over the next hour or so of this 86-minute film are the most suspenseful and best parts of the movie. More than half of the movie has spoiler information that won’t be revealed in this review, but it’s enough to say that Beth is indeed the older sister from 1979 who was shown in the beginning of the film.
And it’s also revealed what happened to Beth’s younger sister Angela, the frightened girl who was being read the bedtime story. It should come as no surprise that the house has been haunted for years. And why is Beth still living there? That is also explained in the story.
“Behind You” uses a lot of the same tropes as a lot of other horror films about demonic spirits, haunted houses and exorcisms. What makes this movie a little different is how mirrors are used in possibly defeating the evil spirit that is inflicting terror on the house’s residents. The movie explains why Beth is still living there, but it doesn’t adequately explain why, during key parts of the story when certain violent acts have already happened, Olivia doesn’t call the police.
It’s probably the biggest obstacles that movies about haunted house find difficult to overcome: How do you explain why the people in the house don’t get out of there and/or call the police? In “Behind You,” there are several attempts to leave the house by certain people, but (you guessed it) the demonic spirit in the house makes it difficult. As for not calling the police, there’s sort of a flimsy reason presented in the movie for why the people in the house don’t call law enforcement (the cops won’t believe that a ghost is responsible for the violence that happens in the house), but it’s still not very convincing.
Another major plot hole to the movie is that this haunted house is not isolated (like most haunted houses are in movies) and is instead on a typical suburban-looking street with next-door neighbors. (“Behind You” was filmed in Utah at a house that was for sale and underwent interior renovations for the movie.) There are scenes in “Behind You” where certain characters could run to a neighbor’s house to get help, but they don’t. However, most horror movies rely on characters making dumb decisions in order to move the story along and create more scares. “Behind You” is no exception.
“Behind You” was written and directed by Matthew Whedon and Andrew Mecham, and it’s the duo’s feature-film debut as directors. According to the movie’s production notes, the film’s initial script was written by Mecham, and Whedon came on board to help with a major rewrite of the screenplay, in order to add more tension. Although the technical elements (such as the editing, cinematography and musical score) of “Behind You” work just fine, and there is plenty of tension in the story, the screenplay really needed some more work for the final 30 minutes of the movie.
Although the last third of “Behind You” falls off the rails into ridiculousness, there are some noteworthy elements to the movie. For a low-budget film, the visual effects are good (but not outstanding) and achieve the intended results of some genuinely eerie and frightful imagery. The house’s interior production design also succeeds in conveying the unsettling atmosphere of a house that’s permeated by evil.
And the acting by Birkner, who plays Claire, is especially good in showing a range of emotions and performing difficult scenes that most child actors would not be able to handle. Birkner, who was 10 when she filmed “Behind You,” is a talent to look out for if she decides to continue acting. But the flip side to what the child actors do in the movie is that more sensitive viewers might be bothered by some of the violent scenes involving the child actors. It’s not exploitative, but some of it is disturbing and definitely not recommended viewing for very young children.
Compared to other movies about haunted houses, “Behind You” isn’t the worst, but it’s not groundbreaking at all. The movie’s ending is ultimately what drags the film down to the “mostly mediocre and forgettable” level. And yes, the very last scene is as cliché as you can get. However, if you’re looking for a movie with some creepy and unnerving moments, then “Behind You” should deliver what you might want, as long as you keep your expectations very low for a well-written plot.