Australian horror movie Surrogate, directed by David Willing and written by David Willing and Beth King, delves into the paranormal. Mom and nurse Natalie Paxton (Kesti Morassi) winds up ill after trying to save a mysterious woman on her way home. Now, something is wreaking havoc with her life. Natalie needs to piece together what happened to save her family and herself. Scary moments wrapped in realistic portrayals make Surrogate worthwhile viewing for any horror enthusiast despite the lack of decent practical effects.

Natalie’s life seems good. She, her brother, and her mom celebrate her daughter Rose’s (Taysha Farrugia) 9th birthday. But after working as a nurse, she leaves her job at the clinic, and a lady, who talks to herself, approaches her car seeking help. Tired from the day’s work, Natalie claims not to work at the clinic so she can go home. Then, while at a gas station, she sees the same woman collapse from drinking bleach. She tries to resuscitate her, but the lady dies. Though unclear, the act of mouth-to-mouth seems to set in motion the haunting for Natalie. 

Surrogate Shows Mental Health Stigmas

Surrogate still of Natalie (Kesti Morassi) sitting in a chair and daughter Rose (Taysha Farrugia) sitting in bathtub
Surrogate still of Natalie (Kesti Morassi) and Rose (Taysha Farrugia)

After waking up in pain from vaginal bleeding, Natalie lands in the hospital. The doctor and a social worker, Lauren Balmer (Jane Badler), accuse her of giving birth to a child and demand to know what Natalie did with the baby. Though Natalie swears she was not pregnant, they assume she is lying.

Through Natalie, Surrogate looks at mental health stigmas as Lauren and the doctor doubt Natalie because they know her medical history. Once a person has that label, no one believes what they say. The two actresses in this scene, Kesti Morassi, and Jane Badler, do terrific work. Jane’s character has the right balance of patronizing condescension, and Kesti’s Natalie has the right amount of shock that borders on laughter because what she hears is implausible. 

When paranormal activity occurs, proving you are a regular, fit parent is challenging enough. But the hurdle is higher if there is a history of mental illness. This aspect of the film reminds me of Dark Skies because Lauren, seeing bruises on Rose, believes Natalie abuses her child. The most vital point of Surrogate is the realistic portrayal of navigating the supernatural as it overlaps to create problems in the mundane world.

Suspenseful But Ineffective Practical Effects

Surrogate still of Ava (Ellie Stewart) sitting in a chair, eyes rolled back and mirrors of her right and left reflecting her image.
Surrogate still of Ava (Ellie Stewart)

Surrogate builds effective tension. The sounds of a baby crying, running water with no clear origin, knocks, and footsteps all evoke dread. As the situation intensifies, witnessing Natalie fight to protect her daughter from what is happening while also fighting to keep her daughter heightens the stress. If I had to describe this film, it would be a B- blend of Dark Water and One Missed Call.

The best scene is when little girl Ava (Ellie Stewart), a spirit medium, with her father in tow, arrives to try and help Natalie. This moment also has a Three Kings game look to it. The audience sees nothing throughout most of the scene, making the setting effective. Once they show the ghost, though, the tension, for me at least, dropped. 

Practical effects are where Surrogate is lacking. Now, I adore practical effects and prefer them to CGI or anything else, as they, when appropriately applied, will always look more realistic. However, practical makeup effects with ghosts are tricky. When done right, a person or child looks otherworldly but shoddy, like a person with a lot of makeup. For Surrogate, the situation is the latter. The poor makeup took me out of the tension. Sometimes the best way to build terror is to leave the monster unseen. The Blair Witch Project delivered terror without the witch onscreen, a route Surrogate should have taken. 

Worth A View Despite Falters

Surrogate still of Natalie (Kesti Morassi) with her back to us looking at a creepy house
Surrogate still of Natalie (Kesti Morassi)

The real-world stress, mixed with the supernatural, allows Surrogate to shine for a while. It creeped me out. But either better effects or hiding the ghost would make the movie better. The ending is creepy but reminiscent of other films. Still, I am curious to see what, if any, horror films David Willing creates in the future. Surrogate proves David Willing understands how to build and maintain suspense, so, with some improvements, the director may deliver chilling, nightmare fuel one day. 

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