The Perished is an Irish horror story about abortion so, naturally, it kicks off with some stomach-churning facts about the Magdalene laundries and the infamous Tuam babies — scandals that are uncomfortably familiar for Irish people and contextualize the story for the rest of the world. The impressive sophomore feature from writer-director Paddy Murphy asks some difficult questions without feeling the need to wrap things up neatly, and is much stronger for it.
Courtney McKeon is Sarah, a young woman who falls pregnant unexpectedly following a random sexual encounter and makes the trip millions of Irish women have made before her, across the pond, to abort it. Her super Catholic Irish mammy kicks her out of the house when she finds out, leaving Sarah to seek refuge with her best friend, Davet (a scene-stealing Paul Fitzgerald) in a creaky old house where she’s plagued by nightmares about aborted babies coming to get her.
Elsewhere, Sarah hallucinates a crib on the side of the road and, in spite of not being pregnant anymore, she starts to exhibit bizarre physical symptoms associated with carrying a child. The sister of her baby’s father, who suffered a recent tragedy of her own, turns up to help and then judge Sarah while the man himself reckons he should’ve had more of a say in what happened to his unborn child. The only person on Sarah’s side is Davet, who sticks by her even as she bleeds through her fifth pair of jeans.
The Perished bravely tackles some dark subject matter but it isn’t all doom and gloom, with Fitzgerald providing plenty of laughs early on thanks to his impeccable comic timing. The Killinaskully alum almost runs away with the movie, so it’s a shame he disappears about halfway through. Without him, the story’s inherent harshness is laid bare, which was arguably Murphy’s intention. After building up the atmosphere for the first two acts, the film’s final third ramps up the tension to an excruciating degree.
It’s mostly single location stuff once Sarah and Davet get to the house (an old parochial house and a brilliant find for this production), which allows space for the story to breathe and infect every inch of the place. Dead kids are a bit cliche at this point but dead babies are totally effed up and The Perished leans heavily into the idea of a woman being haunted not just by her own aborted baby but the souls of hundreds of aborted babies with nuance and menace.
In particular, a monster/creature (created by a woman, natch) who crawls into Sarah’s bed at night is a delightfully shocking addition. The little guy looks a bit like Bad Milo! but is far more sinister. It’s a smart, practical way to bring Sarah’s trauma to the forefront without over-egging the metaphor. In a way, this is emblematic of how The Perished expertly toggles between being a fantastical horror story and a sharp comment on abortion issues, particularly in Ireland.
The film ends a bit abruptly, but in a way that’s satisfyingly obtuse (what other ending could there have been given the ongoing conversation about these issues?) Even with abortion finally legal in Ireland, we have our sisters up north, who still don’t have their basic human rights, to worry about as well as those all over the world. This is an ongoing conversation that is emotionally complicated for some but, boiled down to its basic tenets, it’s remarkably simple.
The Perished doesn’t get everything right, sagging in places and slightly unfocused before it settles into a rhythm, but this is a brave, no holds barred portrayal of a woman in crisis who gets it from all angles about a very personal decision — whether it’s from men, women, or randomers down the shop. Murphy has taken a strong stance here, one he should be commended for as a male filmmaker telling a woman’s story with sensitivity, depth, and zero judgment.
He’ll probably have trouble selling the movie in the States, particularly considering certain US-based conservative groups were funding anti-abortion propaganda in Ireland during one of the most difficult and contentious referendums in the country’s history. The Perished will be a hard sell for sure, and it’s unlikely to change the minds of those intent on controlling women’s bodies, but that hardly matters. This is an impressively dark tale rooted in real-life horrors with the full, unashamed courage of its convictions that will appeal to genre fans and liberal activists alike — no mean feat.
WICKED RATING: 7/10
Director(s): Paddy Murphy
Writer(s): Paddy Murphy
Stars: Courtney McKeon, Fiach Kunz, Paul Fitzgerald, Conor Lambert
Release date: TBC
Studio/Production Company: Celtic Badger Media
Run Time: 88 minutes