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Vivarium is the perfect horror movie for coronavirus self-isolation

Director Lorcan Finnegan reveals how his surreal and striking new Jesse Eisenberg movie, online March 27, recovered from COVID-19 cancelation.

Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots star in Vivarium.

When Lorcan Finnegan wanted to make a horror movie that tackled modern fears, he made Vivarium: a film about a couple unable to leave their house.

"Yeah, it's weird," laughs the Irish director, who never expected his film to become quite so horribly relevant. Like most of us, Finnegan is confined to his home because of the coronavirus and COVID-19 pandemic, but at least he doesn't have to worry about missing Vivarium's premiere this weekend -- it's just one of the many events canceled due to the health crisis. 

Vivarium joins Wonder Woman 1984, Marvel's Black Widow, James Bond thriller No Time to Die and A Quiet Place Part 2 on the long list of postponed movies. Fortunately for the filmmakers, Vivarium was always scheduled to be released in theaters and online at the same time, so even without the cinema screenings the film will be available online Friday, March 27 as planned.

And this wildly imaginative, absorbingly creepy nightmare deserves a place on your quarantine watchlist. 

Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots star as a young couple hoping to scrape together a new home. The last thing they expect is to wind up in a surreal and inescapable house, inspired by Ireland's "ghost estates": empty housing developments built in times of economic growth that were unfinished or abandoned when the economy crashed in 2008.


Vivarium's dreamlike imagery gives it an unsettling charge.


Finnegan and writer Garret Shanley explored these desolate houses in their spooky short film Foxes (which you can watch at the bottom of this article), before expanding into a Black Mirror-esque feature-length take on the idea. 

"We're trying to present what young people are really afraid of," Finnegan explains over the phone from his home in Ireland. "More of an existential fear of losing all their hopes and dreams and possibilities for the future by conforming to society -- you have to buy a house and start paying off a mortgage and then working to pay off the mortgage. So we're trying to think of a suitable monster for that generation."

Finnegan names cult '70s sci-fi movie Phase IV, directed by the legendary Saul Bass, as an influence on Vivarium's strange and striking imagery. Having been inspired by a BBC nature documentary about cuckoos, he describes the film's unfolding weirdness as "almost like people coming up on a psychedelic -- weirdly funny, but also frightening."

The genial director is sanguine about being stuck inside as he mostly works from home anyway. Like many of us, he's continuing his work via video chat as he discusses future projects with potential backers over Skype and Zoom. "And I'm meeting some friends online for a drink," he says. "If we'd suggested doing that two weeks ago everyone would have thought it was ridiculous."

Finnegan plays down the long-term impact of the coronavirus shutdown on films like Vivarium, which cost 4 million euros (about $4.3 million, £3.6 million or AU$7.3 million). "It'd be more of a concern for the big studios who rely on huge theatrical releases and opening weekends," he says. "Whereas indie films and genre stuff have a dedicated audience that find the film whether it's in theaters or VOD."

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Finnegan highlights the fact that coronavirus will also cause a bottleneck for forthcoming films. Work has stopped on movies and TV productions from The Matrix 4 to The Walking Dead, and if they're going to start up again, there'll be a pile-up in the production schedules as they compete for actors, crew, locations and equipment.

For now, Finnegan is remarkably laid-back about the cancelation of his movie's theatrical release. "We didn't have to suddenly scramble and figure out a new marketing strategy," he says thanks to this weekend's planned online release. "Obviously I would have liked it to be in theaters, because it's a different kind of experience being with people and seeing it in its full glory on the big screen. But realistically, genre films like this get seen by more people online and streaming than in theaters."

"And," he adds, "we do have a captive audience."