This review originally ran as part of Paste’s 2022 New York Film Festival coverage.
Joanna Hogg’s The Eternal Daughter feels like stepping into a Halloween mood board. Less compelling to me was the story about a mother and her documentary filmmaker daughter (both played with precision and humor by Tilda Swinton) revisiting a significant family home, now a stately bed and breakfast, to mine memories for the daughter’s upcoming film. I was, instead, more captivated by the technical work encompassing this story: The lightly gothic architecture of the hotel with its spires and looming gargoyles, the perpetual blanket of swirling fog and howling wind, the understated cemetery which shares the grounds, the delicate flute melody that evokes something not of this world, the occasional splash of light from an exit sign pooling an eerie neon green into the hotel hallway.
Nearly every establishing shot in The Eternal Daughter harkens to a landscape painting in an episode of classic Scooby-Doo, in a film that feels like it was made over 50 years ago. It wasn’t until the film’s conclusion that I realized this latter homage was entirely intentional, when a swell of violin and a stylized title card aroused the sensation of having watched the kind of ghost story that doesn’t get made anymore, in a film industry that no longer exists.
Julie (Swinton), her mother, Rosalind (also Swinton), and their dog, Louis (Louis) arrive at the former family manor, now a near-vacant hotel. They run into problems immediately: The hotel’s curmudgeonly young clerk (Carly-Sophia Davies) doesn’t have the room Julie booked available, and won’t give Julie an answer as to whether she and her mother will be able to stay in their begrudgingly gifted replacement room. On top of the room mix-up, the hotel has no WiFi (inconveniently, you find a signal only at the very top of the establishment), there is a strange clanging sound that plagues Julie’s sleep and she would really like an electric kettle to boil water for her tea. Every request to the young clerk seems to be too much, Davies consistently proffering terse apathy and a hilariously throbbing vein. But she still obliges Julie’s simple, if needy, requests.
Partly to drum up her mother’s childhood memories as well as celebrate her upcoming birthday, pre-production on Julie’s film becomes complicated when she realizes that the house harbors traumatic memories for Rosalind as well as happy ones. Rosalind doesn’t necessarily view this as something that should impede her daughter (“That’s what rooms do: They hold these stories”). But suddenly, Julie is questioning if she has a right to bring her mother here and to try and rouse these unpleasant memories so that she may use them for her own ends. Swinton is a marvel at playing against herself—you completely forget that the characters are being portrayed by the same person. And, aside from one critical moment, Hogg only films the two Swintons in shot-reverse-shot as opposed to using trickery to place them in frame together.
The Eternal Daughter is less of a haunted house story and more about being haunted by a house. The spectral presence appearing in windows that Julie begins to perceive is not an antagonist, but a looming reminder of past, present and future all at once, converging in this hotel. This slowly descends into intentional obscurity by the film’s climax, forcing us to question what exactly we just witnessed during the previous two acts. While some of the fractured familial stuff overstays its welcome, the ambiguous ending is not only refreshing, but adds to the deliciously unnerving quality of the entire production.
Thus, I was slightly less taken in by the film’s narrative and more by the absolutely brilliant atmosphere that Hogg crafts with cinematographer Ed Rutherford and production designer Stéphane Collonge. The camera softens everything like an old photograph; occasional low-key source lighting blankets 90% of a given frame in darkness. The stationary camera and emphasis on empty halls, large, looming spaces and establishing shots that look pulled directly from some idealized version of a spooky October night create a gorgeously haunting ambience that you just want to step inside so you can live in its forever Halloween.
Not enough modern horror films are interested in creating spooky vibes. You find them when you seek out old Hollywood horror films like The Black Cat or Dracula, their tone achieved as a response to the technology of the time period. But it’s clearly a vibe that’s inspired the atmosphere of The Eternal Daughter, and Hogg has managed to recreate it stunningly for a modern film. As a story about a mother and daughter trying to move on from old wounds and contextualize their relationship, the film is perfectly adequate. But as a film watched on a chilly, damp fall day—not unlike the day I write this review—with a mug of hot cider, the coziest pajamas and Halloween just a few weeks away, I could not ask for anything better.
Director: Joanna Hogg
Writer: Joanna Hogg
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Joseph Mydell, Carly-Sophia Davies, Alfie Sankey-Green
Release Date: October 10, 2022 (New York Film Festival)
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared at Gawker, The Playlist, Polygon, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more. You can follow her on Twitter.