I was first intrigued by Paddy Murphy’s The Perished on the basis of its central theme — which draws on the horrific history of Ireland’s “Magdalene Laundries,” where “fallen women” and girls who became pregnant out of wedlock were hidden away from their families and/or communities. Run more like forced labor camps than hospitals or reformatories, these houses were often host to inhuman atrocities — including mass burials of unbaptized children, who were forbidden by the Church to be interred with their own relatives. This isn’t some long-forgotten Medieval practice, either — these facilities continued to operate in Ireland well into the late 20th century.

I was interested in how this concept would be addressed in a horror film set in the present day, taking place within a mansion that once served as one of these hellish homes, and curious to see how the it would address the issue of women’s reproductive rights (which continues to be as controversial and divisive as ever) in the context of a haunted house tale. That’s why I was ultimately disappointed when the horror elements of The Perished failed to rise to the level of intense drama at its heart.

Terrified that an unexpected pregnancy will destroy her chances for a better life, college student Sarah Dekker (Courtney McKeon) chooses to have an abortion. While recovering at a mansion owned by the family of her best friend Davet (Paul Fitzgerald, The Sleep Experiment), she eventually learns the ominous structure was once one of the aforementioned Laundry Houses — and, if local rumors are true, the site of a mass grave for unwanted children.

We do experience some creepy foreshadowing of the supernatural events to come, but the audience is kept in the dark for nearly half of the film’s 90-minute running time. Sarah is increasingly plagued by the sound of crying infants, and she begins to suffer horrific physical symptoms which may or may not be side-effects of the abortion procedure. But the question of whether her experiences are trauma-induced hallucinations or paranormal manifestations is casually tossed aside when other characters admit to hearing the same disembodied cries and witness flocks of suicidal crows crashing into the house.

Even once it’s made clear the mansion’s curse is real — and a very disturbing creature (known as the “Nightmare Child”) reveals itself — we’re still left with many unanswered questions. First, if Davit’s family owns the house, why is he completely unaware of its history? It’s evident the people living in the surrounding town know about it (a convenience-store clerk mentions it in hushed tones), so why is this information delivered in such an offhand way? If not for the film’s text prologue about the history of the Laundry Houses, it would have taken me a lot longer to realize what happened in the old mansion — and in turn why the curse would manifest itself when Sarah comes to stay there.

While there’s a lot to love about The Perished for its theme and concept, it ultimately falls flat as a horror tale — not because any of its individual components are weak in themselves, but because the horror elements seem more of an afterthought in the face of a very realistic story of grief, guilt and personal trauma.

On the plus side, Murphy is expert in crafting naturalistic “kitchen sink” realism with sympathetic characters, and McKeon commits totally to the role of Sarah, who appears fragile and vulnerable on the surface but is revealed to be tough and resolute in her life choices; instead of being a reactionary horror heroine, her decisions and choices drive the narrative. This is definitely her fight, and the other characters are mostly relegated to the sidelines… which sadly hampers the film’s effectiveness.

With the exception of Fitzgerald (who is excellent as Sarah’s gay BFF), the supporting characters are not given enough attention: Sarah’s ex-boyfriend Shane (Fiach Kunz, Game of Thrones), who doesn’t know he’s the father of her unborn child when he breaks up with her, only re-enters the story at the midway point; it’s also late in the game when we learn Shane’s sister Rebecca (Lisa Tyrrell, Urban Traffik) is married to Shane’s friend and co-worker Kilin (Stephen Tubridy), and harbors a tragic secret of her own. When one of the characters becomes possessed and begins speaking in a strange tongue just moments before the Nightmare Child finally attacks, we have about 10 minutes to process this twist before the credits begin to roll.

I wanted to love The Perished — particularly for its message, which is delivered in a naturalistic and non-preachy way, and for McKeon’s heartbreaking performance as Sarah. I was also impressed by the grotesque creature effects, first revealed by flashes of lightning and mostly seen slithering in the shadows. But when the story requires genuine horror to manifest its main themes, it arrives as more of an afterthought.

Regardless, Murphy is definitely an actor’s director — a much-needed commodity in the horror genre — and I’m looking forward to seeing more of his work, including his chapter in the international horror anthology For We Are Many.

The Perished is now available to stream On Demand. Check out the trailer here: