Made in 2009, The New Daughter is a movie that did not overly catch the attention of the general public upon its release, which is unfortunate, since it is skilfully made, is high on tension and atmosphere, and has a notable cast.
The movie stars Kevin Costner, Samantha Mathis (of American Psycho) and Ivana Baquero, who played the lead role in Guillermo del Toro’s acclaimed fantasy-themed movie of 2006, Pan’s Labyrinth.
Costner’s character – John James – has recently split up with his wife and moves with his children, Louisa (Baquero) and Sam (Gattlin Griffith), to a small, isolated town, one that is surrounded by dense woodland; something which sets the scene for the menace that soon follows.
It’s clear from the beginning that the relationship between John and his children is strained: Louisa resents being taken out of her old school and losing all her old friends. Sam is the quieter one of the two, but is traumatized by his parents’ divorce and clings to his father for support. Almost immediately, we come to realize that there is something very strange about the house into which the James family has moved.
On the very first night, we catch a shadowy glimpse of a strange, humanoid creature clambering across the roof of the huge house, the sounds of which catch Louisa’s attention. On top of that, John learns - to his anger, since his realtor made no mention of it - that the previous owner disappeared under mysterious circumstances.
The unsettling atmosphere only increases when Louisa’s pet cat is found dead by John, torn to pieces, as if by a wild animal. He chooses to bury the body without telling her or Sam.
With no friends in the area, Louisa and Sam decide to explore the woods that surround the home. On doing so, they stumble upon a strange, grassy mound, about fifteen feet high, one that clearly looks to have been constructed, rather than being a natural formation. They quickly call their father to the scene. Sam immediately feels disturbed by the mound and refuses to go near it, whereas Louisa is oddly drawn to it. And that’s when the trouble starts.
Tensions grow higher when the children start their new school. Neither Sam nor Louisa are looking forward to it, especially Louisa, who notes the instant attraction between her father and Sam’s teacher, Cassandra Parker. When the school day is finally over, Louisa visits the mound, and lays down on top of it. Suddenly, hostile, animalistic sounds fill the air. Only later do we find out why.
Later that evening, John is puzzled by the sight of a trail of muddy footprints that extend from the front door to the bathroom. Unbeknownst to John, his daughter is in the shower, washing off her mud-covered body. Hours later, John finds Louisa sleepwalking, which deeply worries him.
He’s also concerned by the discovery, in Louisa’s room, of a crudely fashioned doll, made from straw. John helps his daughter return to her bed and she quickly resumes her regular sleep. Come the following morning, for Louisa everything is normal, and, when pressed by John, she maintains no knowledge of having sleepwalked - or of the doll.
Louisa begins to have trouble at school, and particularly so with one of the girls in her class. Her eating habits change, to the extent that she begins to eat her food solely with her fingers, savagely biting at, and chewing on, her dinner like a wild animal. John looks on, exasperated and angry, but putting it down to teenage rebellion and the stress caused by the divorce. He soon finds out how wrong he is.
John and Cassandra meet for dinner, during which the matter of Louisa’s odd behavior comes up. Cassandra, too, believes that everything is down to hormones and John’s recent split from his wife. John’s perspective changes drastically, when, as he drives home and passes through the woods that surround the property, a strange, darkened figure races across the road.
John screeches to a halt and gets out of the car. He cautiously peers into the dense forest, only to find himself seemingly stalked by something savage and animalistic. As he jumps back into his vehicle, the driver’s side window is smashed by a rock thrown from the darkness.
Racing into the house and locking the door, John warns Louisa to keep away from the woods and the mound. By now, however, her curious behavior is becoming more and more unsettling.
As John decides to dig further into the history of the house, he learns that not only did the previous owner, Sarah Wayne, vanish, she also locked her daughter in her bedroom before she fled the property. Even more disturbing, the daughter subsequently went to live with her grandfather, a deranged Roger Wayne, who John visits and who tells him he killed his granddaughter in a fire.
The reason for Wayne’s crazed action: she was changing into… something else. John flees from Wayne and races for home, where Louisa and Sam have been left with an elderly babysitter – who is savagely attacked and killed by an unseen predator or several as she smokes on the porch late at night.
With the disappearance of the sitter – something which brings the local police into the story – John begins to dig further into the matter of the curious mound, to which Louisa is so oddly, and unsettlingly, attached. During the course of his research into the mound, John speaks with a Professor Evan White, who reveals the folklore and mythology behind the many similar mounds that extend across the United States.
They are said to be the work of an ancient race of semi-human, primitive beings that live in forested areas, and dwell in underground tunnels and hollows, access to which is made via the above-ground mounds.
More disturbing, the mound-dwellers – all of who are male – require a female mate to ensure a new, healthy lineage comes into being. John cannot find himself fully able to believe that Louisa has been chosen for such a task, any more than he can accept the existence of the primal monsters said to lurk below. So, he asks a friend to destroy the mound – but not before Professor White arrives and begs him to reconsider.
John does not. As his workman proceeds to tear down the mound with his bulldozer, White’s assistant lets out an ear-splitting scream: the mutilated body of the babysitter is seen, semi-buried, in the dirt and grime.
Police-officer Ed Lowry (actor Erik Palladino) gets involved, only to lose his life to one of the creatures in the woods, as he and John are driving to the family home. As John bursts through the front door, he is confronted by a scene of carnage: Cassandra is lying on the kitchen floor, dying from a gaping wound to her neck. Sam is in a state of shock and fear. Louisa, meanwhile, is no longer recognizable as John’s daughter: her mind has been transformed into something else.
A fierce battle for survival begins as three of the mound-monsters invade the home, and John finally realizes that the proto-humans are not the stuff of folklore and mythology, but of deadly reality. He blasts them with his shotgun, telling Sam to stay where he is, while he, John, goes off in pursuit of Louisa. He knows exactly where he will find her: the mound.
John finds a way into the mound, and is plunged into a nightmarish, underground realm filled with muddy, dirty tunnels, a maze-like construction that extends dozens of feet underground, and in which the mound-dwellers live. He finds Louisa and drags her to the surface, fighting off the craze creatures as he does so. The fight for survival is not over, however.
As John stares at Louisa, he sees she is beginning to physically change – into a female equivalent of the primitive people he knows he must destroy. A look of utter despair comes over John’s face as blows up the mound with a large canister of diesel – killing not just the creatures, but himself and Louisa, too.
The final scene of the movie is that of Sam, outside the house and staring at the wild flames, who is suddenly surrounded by several mound-dwellers that surface out of the woods and trees.
A satisfyingly savage ending to a film that, if you haven't seen it, you should...