In Vitro, SFF review: ecological thriller meets domestic drama down under

In Vitro is an Australian horror sci-fi that splices chills with domestic drama, and plays coy with its true nature.
In Vitro. Talia Zucker. Madman.

In In Vitro, agriculture has collapsed at some undisclosed point in Australia’s near future, perhaps nudging towards the first Mad Max – when society is teetering but has not yet plummeted into the ‘let’s have hoon fights in the desert while inexplicably wearing leather’ abyss.

Ashley Zuckerman, who depicted Succession’s Shiv-keen political aide, Nate, plays waxed jacket-wearing farmer Jack. In this challenging reality, he has turned, Blade Runner-style, to real-world tech with a slight speculative spin in order to artificially create new life.

Cloning cows in industrial vats on the remote farm he shares with partner Layla (Lake Mungo star Talia Zucker, who’s also one of the writers), he’s concealing something else bubbling away in an abandoned corner of these overgrown tin sheds in which ‘farming’ takes place on a vast scale. There’s a clinical distance between Jack and Layla, too, as they go through the motions of a couple haunted by financial worries and the emotional scars of family tragedy hinted at in gauzy flashbacks.

The beast that lurks

In Vitro is written and directed by Tom McKeith (Beast) and Will Howarth, the latter of which also appears in the film as farmhand ring-in Brady, who is not pleased by the long drive to get to their property. Howarth co-starred with Zucker in the twisted immigration accommodation horror movie Motel Acacia and brings an everyman-style befuddlement to whatever’s happening here. However, it’s gradually teased out that he knows way more than he’s letting on.

All the while, classic horror movie chills are wrangled from strange noises heard in the night, with Layla grabbing her gun and searching the property after dark while a mysteriously injured Jack rests in bed. Requisite dog-in-peril bait and switches ratchet up tenterhooks. What was in that unknown vat, and where is it now?

Australia has a proud tradition of ecologically motivated action thriller and horror movies, and In Vitro adroitly splices the bones of these genres with the creeping menace of a domestic violence drama. Zuckerman, so charismatic if cocky in Succession, plays chilly as a failing businessman in an austere film that unsettles through its suggested imbalance in the central relationship. Things aren’t quite right between Jack and Layla from the off.

Is Layla pulling away purely because she’s nursing deep-seated grief, or is there more to her unwillingness to be touched by the man she shares her home with? She’s hands-on in trying to kickstart the failing machinery producing cows birthed with fatal errors, but there’s an element of coercive control in how Jack closely guards details of the business they both run and is plotting an alternative option without her knowing.

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Ring the alarm

Whatever’s going on out there, it’s causing the lights to flicker in their home and regularly sets off nerve-jangling alarm bells, both literally and figuratively.

It all adds up to an unsettling set-up with plenty of promise, but In Vitro’ is a little too top-heavy to maintain the chills from start to startling finish. A massive reveal happens too early in the first act that would have had much greater impact if it had been held back a little, allowing the mystery to wind itself ever tighter along the way.

When the character involved is confronted with what should be a reality-rocking event, they take it too easily in their stride. There are clues seeded throughout the story as to why this may be, but in practice, it doesn’t necessarily work towards overall tension building, and makes for a longer-than-ideal trot to the final stretch’s killer blows.

With echoes of recent, even smaller-scale sci-fi chiller Monolith, this isn’t quite the creature feature you might expect. While In Vitro plays coy with its true nature and is perhaps too hasty in pulling back the curtain, it’s nevertheless a promising new entry into the ever-increasing canon of films ill at ease with how humanity is abusing technology designed to course-correct our self-inflicted problems. But then, we’re damn good at ignoring what’s best for us and the planet.

In Vitro premiered at the 2024 Sydney Film Festival on 6 June. The distributor is Madman Entertainment.


3.5 out of 5 stars

In Vitro


Ashley Zukerman , Talia Zucker, Will Howarth


Will Howarth & Tom McKeith

Format: Movie

Country: Australia