DIRECTOR: Stephen Karam

CAST: Beanie Feldstein, Richard Jenkins, Jayne Houdyshell, Amy Schumer, Steven Yeun, June Squibb

RUNNING TIME: 108 mins

CERTIFICATE: 15

BASICALLY…: A family gathers for a Thanksgiving meal that reveals some buried secrets…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

Just in time for Christmas, here’s a film about the most chilling and unsettling family get-together since the Sawyers first sat down for dinner time in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Except, The Humans – written and directed by Stephen Karam, and based on his play of the same name – isn’t exactly a horror movie… at least, not in the traditional sense.

On the surface, it seems pretty simple: a family, including parents Erik (Richard Jenkins) and Deidre (Jayne Houdyshell), their adult daughters Aimee (Amy Schumer) and Brigid (Beanie Feldstein), and Erik’s dementia-ridden mother Momo (June Squibb), gather at the empty two-floor apartment that Brigid and her partner Richard (Steven Yeun) have just moved into, for a traditional Thanksgiving meal where, naturally, major revelations are unveiled. It all sounds like straightforward family drama, and for the most part it is, but there is an underlying creepiness in the way it is filmed and edited that makes this seemingly normal situation feel rather disturbing when looked at from a certain angle.

Karam’s direction is eerie in its slow building-up of tension without you even realising it, with background noises like footsteps from the above apartment or the trash compactor within the walls, all the way to how dilapidated and rundown the apartment itself is – there’s damp in the ceiling, cracks along the wall, and what looks to be a dried turd covering part of the visible pipes – working towards an uncomfortable atmosphere that is increasingly becoming more and more unstable. It isn’t hyperbole to say how much the filmmaking resembles that of a haunted-house movie, with the tightly-wound cinematography slowly zooming in on characters like they’re being stalked by an unseen monster, and sound design that produces effective jump-scare noises at precisely the right moments. It’s creepy to watch unfold, even when there isn’t anything traditionally scary happening on-screen at that very moment.

Why this approach, though? What is Karam’s intention for filming and pacing his stage adaptation like an artsy horror movie, one that relies way more on mood and atmosphere than spooky creatures or piercing screams? Perhaps it is to convey the serious (and seriously terrifying) themes that Karam is addressing throughout his piece, such as the economic divide between wealthier baby boomers and struggling millennials – Brigid’s parents, who are apparently wealthy enough to own a lake house somewhere, are visibly and verbally judgemental of their daughter’s rather grim new living conditions – and paranoias that have stemmed from personal experiences during the 9/11 attacks. The characters themselves seem to represent harsh realities that fellow humans have to go through, from being medically unable to perform work-based tasks (Aimee has been let go from her job due to her chronic bowel issues) to being so completely lost from reality that all they have left to say is simply gibberish (as represented by June Squibb’s ailing Momo), so there is certainly some awareness in how Karam and his sextet ensemble are conveying some of their horrifying portrayals with intent to cause great discomfort.

The Humans is so unnerving to watch because the filmmaking and the performances are all so on point that it could introduce an actual ghost at any moment and none of its realism would be lost. It is a horror film by way of John Cassavettes, with the overlapping dialogue feeling so natural and unrehearsed that sometimes it does seem as though we are just watching people get through the course of this very unnatural evening, and when some of the more scarier elements come into play – especially during a final pitch-dark sequence that is in and of itself a neatly terrifying experience – it’s played out like something which still feels of this earth despite the sudden shift in tone. You do feel scared for some of these people, but at the same time knowing some of the messier elements of their lives, you start to wonder if certain people actually deserve what is happening to them, since by all accounts they brought it all upon themselves.

It’s hard to imagine how this overwhelming fear and dread could be represented in its original stage format, but as a self-contained movie the effect is undeniably chilling and much more intense than most people might realise. The naturalism can often get in the way of the actual revelations that are brought forward, especially with its loose structure where little ends up happening by the midway point, but by and large The Humans does make some interesting points in a unique and undeniably effective way that most holiday-themed family dramas could only ironically execute.

SO, TO SUM UP…

The Humans is a surprisingly intense family drama which writer-director Stephen Karam injects with some unnerving horror-movie direction that highlights the chilling themes even more, coupled with strong turns by a sextet acting ensemble who deliver some impressively natural turns amidst a rather disturbing, if slow-moving, narrative.

The Humans will be released in cinemas nationwide on Sunday 26th December 2021.

It is now available to rent exclusively on Curzon Home Cinema.

 

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