Harris’ first feature film is like a mesh between two of last year’s better horror films, Hatching and Mad God. Just like the former, the film symbolically addresses troubling parental relationships and the effects they have on their children. Like the latter, it’s set in a dark, industrial and illogical dream world. Unlike Mad God, however, we have some grasp on the plot and the goal of our protagonist.
After witnessing her parents, Sara and Alex (Augie Duke and Brionne Davis), have a fiery argument, five-year-old Emma (Haven Lee Harris), takes a blow to the head and falls into a coma. For the remainder of the film, we’re inside Emma’s comatose mind. It’s a personal dreamscape mixed with memories of her parents and interjections from the real, physical world. Lost and alone in her own kind of Oz, Emma longs for her parents’ love. She keeps a radio transmitter with her that allows her to hear her parents speak to her unconscious body.
Listening to their words and envisioning her fond memories with them pushes Emma to escape her nightmare and wake her from her coma, but family memories charged with hate, or just void of affection, causes Emma to cry; and those tears feed a teeth-chattering demon who relentlessly hunts her.
Seemingly drawing inspiration from the likes of Švankmajer, Jeunet and Lynch, Harris designs his wonderland with a plethora of in-your-face techniques. He impressively puts together a super-artificial blend of practical effects, VFX, miniatures, puppeteering, compositing, stop motion and more. In one scene, Emma sees the reverse action of a musician smashing a piano with a sledgehammer. In another, she traverses an ethereal landscape in an inanimate rhino. Harris loves playing with fog, whether it’s lying low, blasting at a high volume or lightly lingering in the air for a spooky atmosphere.
Color temperatures are also greatly exaggerated. Red is affiliated with hate and the demonic, while blue is portrayed as hopeful and whimsical. Harris doesn’t just use these lighting schemes in Emma’s comatose world either, so even the real world feels somewhat dreamlike. Shooting on rolls of expired film stock helped give the film its fabricated look as well.
The film will be remembered for its bizarre visuals, but Moon Garden is doused in emotion, making it more than just a freak show. Emma smiles and cries, and her broken parents hope for her recovery at her bedside. We can’t help but to learn through the journey and reflect on our own relationships with loved ones along the way. It’s an ambitious first-film effort by Ryan Steven Harris, and I hope to see him further sophisticate his methods in the future. He certainly has a vision worth tracking.