Alexis Jacknow’s “Clock” interrogates society’s preoccupation with procreation. [The Overlook Film Festival]

An off-shoot of 20th Century Studios, 20th Digital Studio works with Hulu to produce a series of horror-centric shorts for October that they call “Bite Size Halloween.” With submissions ranging in a variety of topics from several creators, only a small grouping of them have been tapped so far to be expanded into features. Bite Size Halloween graduate Anna Zlokovic’s short Appendage premiered at Sundance 2022, with the feature of the same title following at SXSW 2023 (reviewed by our own senior critic Hunter Heilman). Now it’s writer/director/actor Alexis Jacknow’s turn with her short-turned-feature Clock, with the short originally premiering in 2020 and the feature having its world premiere at The Overlook Film Festival 2023 with a new cast and shifted concept. Though the biological ticking aspect remains, Jacknow offers a rumination that expands beyond the internal struggle potential child-birthers face into the external, presenting a horror show that’s elevated enough to disquiet but real enough to generate chills all its own.


Dianna Agron as Ella in Alexis Jacknow’s CLOCK. Photo courtesy of Hulu.

Ella (Dianna Agron) is a successful interior designer on the cusp of making the leap into resort properties, is married to a loving husband, Aidan (Jay Ali), and uses her free time to volunteer, cook, and do anything else that she desires. As she celebrates the upcoming arrival of a close friend’s baby, the interrogation as to whether Ella will ever have a baby returns, throwing her happy existence into a state of near-constant turmoil. Concerned that there’s something wrong with her that she doesn’t want a child, she turns to Dr. Elizabeth Simmons (Melora Hardin) who is conducting a study to see if a combination of prescriptions and cognitive behavioral treatment (CBT) can “cure” someone of their avoidance of having children.


Melora Hardin as Dr. Elizabeth Simmons in Alexis Jacknow’s CLOCK. Photo courtesy of Hulu.

In my view, some of the best horror tales occur when tied to something more than blood and guts. There’s certainly a place for that, but as I have a soft constitution, I look for stories that seek to explore concepts like grief (Mandy), fear (Halloween Ends), personal responsibility (The Long Walk), and even lapsed faith (The Vigil). This is where Jacknow’s Clock exists, using a multi-layered approach to examine the way in which women exist in a patriarchal world, even those whose matriarchal culture might outwardly prove to contradict this yet offer no shelter. What does this mean? Thanks to costuming, before its ever stated, Ella is identified as Jewish, a community which defines its lineage through the women in the family, not the men. Despite this, women remain subservient to their husbands (especially in Orthodox settings) and though there are many laws and customs which place the safety of the female partner above an offspring, these laws/customs are typically within the framework of the wife-as-property. So, though Ella is presented as successful career-wise, her father Joseph (Saul Rubinek) harps on her to add to their family. This is the burden of child-birthers made extraordinarily larger by two decisions in the character design: Ella is an only child, thereby placing the responsibility of extending the lineage on her and her alone, and Ella is second-generation American and only third-removed from the Holocaust. Layer-upon-layer, Jacknow has created a powder keg of pressure that weighs on Ella, creating a fissure within the capable and content individual so that a vulnerability can be created within the natural realm so that horrific thrills and chills can occur.

So what does this look like in the 96-minute film? A mixture of horrors real and fantastical. It’s a regular gynecological appointment wherein the doctor has no bedside manner, offers no caution or care regarding speculum use (or other invasive tools), and pushes socially accepted norms over listening to the patient in regard to maintaining personal autonomy. It’s having a group of friends who parrot talking-points over the beauty of parenthood, berating their friend rather than supporting them, treating conception, child-birth, and child-rearing as the defining characteristic of someone society deems should get pregnant. One need only consider the way in which society speaks to girls/women to recognize the harm it does to frame a single person’s existence by their body versus their person — young girls (don’t get pregnant), young women (use protection), dating/engaged individuals (when’s the wedding?), married couples (when will you have children?). Everything is framed by the act of sex and comes charged with social responsibility versus what the individual wants to do. Jacknow recognizes this so that even when things don’t get weird, everything feels off as those seemingly close to Ella possess an antagonist vibe due to their presumptions about what “family” means. It’s having a father tell his daughter that her grandparents didn’t survive Kraków just so that it could end with Ella. It’s being told over and over that no matter what Ella wants, what Ella desires for her life to be, if she’s not a parent then what’s the point? This takes the entirety of one’s existence and narrows it down to a single aspect of them, as if all the things that make up Ella aren’t worth any sort of value. By the time the expected illusions, jump scares, and other forms of psychological horror appear, even the audience isn’t sure which one is the worse form of terror. That one would even consider trading the illusory phantoms for the social constructs that plague them daily is incredible and terrifying all on its own.


Dianna Agron as Ella in Alexis Jacknow’s CLOCK. Photo courtesy of Hulu.

In a griping scene, Jacknow’s script has Ella explain the significance of the Holocaust and her relationship to it to Dr. Simmons stating something to the effect that if it could happen there and then, it can happen here and now. Argon delivers this particular monologue with a barely veiled bit of anger that makes each line feel barbed and dangerous. This matters within the context of the film as it draws a direct line between the medical professionals of World War II who performed experiments on Jews, Gypsies, trans individuals, gay or lesbian individuals, disabled individuals, and anyone else held at the camps. The knowledge they found was (a) supported by local government and (b) remains in use today, even by the fictional Dr. Simmons with her view of women-as-dedicated-child-givers. This also speaks to the cultural significance of being Jewish and that aspect of Ella’s identity. I also don’t think that it’s happenstance that the Chai Ella wears around her neck, viewed as a totem/charm for good luck and protection, a symbol that means “to life,” breaks right as Ella makes her decision to join Dr. Simmons’s study. Jacknow infuses the whole of Clock with Judaism in a way that I haven’t seen since The Vigil (2021), which gave us the coolest use of tefillin as body armor/weapon.


Dianna Agron as Ella in Alexis Jacknow’s CLOCK. Photo courtesy of Hulu.

There are so many ideas within Clock that a more in-depth, spoiler-filled review would need to be written in order to address them all, to identify the ways in which the cinematography, performances, and VFX blend together so that the audience is repeatedly caught off guard in ways that only amplify the tone and tenor of the moment, to explore the social and cultural bias that exists in the world and that Jacknow interrogates ferociously without losing the audience in the process, to speak on Argon’s ability to root, fear, and worry for Ella at every step of her journey, to admonish the people in Ella’s life that presume having children is the only way to lead a productive life and, by extension, the rest of real society who do this to women daily. Whether one hears the ticking, wants to hear it, or their clock is silent, this should be left to the individual to handle. Sadly, in a post-Roe America, that’s doubtful to change, at least here, any time soon.

Screened during The Overlook Film Festival 2023.
Available on Hulu Friday, April 28th, 2023.

For more information, head to the official Overlook Film Festival 2023 film schedule page.

Final Score: 4 out of 5.

Overlook 2023

Categories: In Theaters, Reviews, streaming

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

2 replies

  1. Child-birthers??? Nothing you said after that even registered.

    • Given the fact that some individuals who have the ability to give birth don’t identify their gender as women, it felt the most respectful way to get to the heart of the conflict in the film which is the push for pregnancy. The film itself doesn’t tackle the trans issue, but it does include a lesbian couple who have their own concerns regarding reproduction. That said, I do hope you’ll at least give the film a shot when it releases on Hulu.

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