One of the finest aspects of horror is its ability to speak directly to the human condition with an astute, razor sharp precision. As a result, many of the great horror films also function as powerful dramas. 'The Shining' is a devastating portrait of domestic violence, while 'Rosemary’s Baby' shows a woman caught in a sickening case of gaslighting and grooming from those supposed to protect her, as just two examples. In recent years, the creative teams behind modern horror classics 'The Witch' and 'Hereditary' have described their films as family tragedies more so than horror films, though in truth they function beautifully as both, and the reason for their commercial and critical success is how expertly they balance these two narrative forms.
That said, 'The Humans' is not a horror film, though an understanding of horror tropes is perhaps useful when approaching it. The directorial debut of playwright Stephen Karam, who also wrote the screenplay based on his acclaimed play, 'The Humans' cleverly inverts the idea of a horror film masquerading as a family drama by presenting us with a family drama masquerading as a horror film. Despite its flaws, it creates a state of palpable tension few horror films could dream of.
A middle-class American family have come together in the new New York apartment of youngest daughter Brigid (Beanie Feldstein, 'Booksmart') and her boyfriend Richard (Steven Yeun, 'Burning'). The two-level Chinatown apartment is a tapestry of rental nightmares, from broken toilets to water-clogged walls to endlessly failing light bulbs, only adding to the anxiety of father Erik (Richard Jenkins, 'The Shape of Water'), fearful of having one of his daughters living in the city. With the furniture delayed, the family gather around picnic tables, mother Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell, TV's 'Only Murders in the Building') making the best of the tension in the group, older sister Aimee (Amy Schumer, 'Trainwreck') trying to suppress her building medical worries and dementia-ridden grandmother Momo (June Squibb, 'Nebraska') vacantly sitting in the corner. As the evening progresses, and the unspoken tensions within the family begin to boil over, the evening progresses from polite conversation to an endless series of shattering nightmares.
In its original theatrical form, 'The Humans' operates in a closed time and space, meaning that the action occurs within one location and in real time. This often doesn’t translate overly well to film without a strong cinematic eye behind it, and while 'The Humans' can’t entirely shake off its theatrical origins, Karam does at least consider what film can offer him over theatre. In this case, the camera is used less as a way to hone in on performance as to establishing an observational position, Karam and cinematographer Lol Crawley ('Vox Lux') opting for wide shots and slow tracking shots rather than intense close-ups. This serves two useful functions. The first is placing the characters within the crumbling, oppressive environment of the apartment, both within the volume of the spaces they inhabit and where they are at any given point in relation to one another. In many cases, we see characters listening to conversations rather than the conversations themselves, there alone within the dark caverns of the apartment. The second function links with how 'The Humans' uses the language of horror. The best horror films refuse to direct the eye to where we should look, such as in the extraordinary fixed camera shots in 'Paranormal Activity'. If the camera won’t tell us where to look, then we won’t be able to anticipate whatever shocks are to come, and so much of the construction of 'The Humans' is in how it creates a feeling of inevitable shock that never comes.
Crawley's cinematography enhances this with close-ups of the many unnerving details of the apartment itself. It has become a cliché to describe an environment as a character within a film, but in this case the cliche is justified, so integral is the apartment to the drama. It’s also a cliché to say that the environment is a metaphor for the internal struggles of the characters, but again, this film isn't attempting to hide the fact. From the moment it begins, with Erik meticulously inspecting the grime-ridden spaces, we know that this family is in trouble, and Crawley’s careful and artful close-ups of the walls, windows, dirt and decay add to the feeling of inevitability, towards a collapse that the family itself isn’t aware of. Perhaps the most interesting read of 'The Humans' is as a work of body horror, with the body in question being the apartment itself, paint ballooning on the walls with sewage water like bulbous, cancerous tumours. The nightmare is further amplified by the extraordinary sound design, a careful symphony of builds and accents, and Nick Houy's lacerating editing. Everything about the aesthetics of 'The Humans' suggests that we’re about to witness an unforgiving work of horror, the trick being that we are, just a horror closer to home.
For all its craft, the heart of 'The Humans' is Karam's screenplay. The scenario is one almost everyone would be familiar with, the idea that a family gathering for the holidays can contain endless levels of emotional violence. The system of this family is broken long before any of them walk through the door, but the circumstances of coming together in an unfamiliar and oppressive environment, combined with the pressure of performance that the holidays always brings, work to force the cracks even further. There is a shocking viciousness to the dialogue, with the careful pitching of some insults as alarming as a jump scare or a moment of gore. It’s always a clue when you meet a family who repeat the mantra "Family is the most important thing" that everyone is holding on to that philosophy like a life raft; no functioning, healthy, loving family would ever need to say that. In 'The Humans', with its hellish location, it feels even more desperate and pointless. Maybe they will come together at the end, but they’re going to have to lacerate one another in the process.
Being a piece of American drama for the stage, inevitably everyone comes to the table with a secret, and in most cases, the revelation of each secret feels almost like a let-down. They become moments of self-conscious melodrama in a film where the intricate, careful turns of the screw into one another are more fascinating and the more powerful. These tiny acts of cruelty would be enough to carry the drama along, especially with the exquisite build of tension and fear in the craft of the film, and while the final moments do tie the thematic and aesthetic threads together, the moments before the climax do deflate it somewhat. The advantage of the closed-time-and-space conceit is that, by the end, we understand the depths of despair in each of these characters, where that despair has come from and how it shapes their actions on this night, and much like the apartment itself, we become both observers to their pain and sponges for it. When a punch is thrown, when a sharp word is spoken, we flinch just as another aspect of the apartment falls apart in response. We are witness to a sparring match to the death, but it's the swift, sharp attacks that sting far more than the heavy, thudding punches.
When a punch is thrown, when a sharp word is spoken, we flinch just as another aspect of the apartment falls apart in response.
A drama as intricate as 'The Humans' requires a cast of considerable calibre, and in this case, it achieves it with relish. There’s not a weak performance in the film, each actor perfectly pitching the house-of-cards complexity of their characters. It’s vital that we both love and hate every single one of them all at once, though in the case of Richard Jenkins and Beanie Feldstein, that balance is all the trickier as the film goes on. Feldstein in particular delivers some of the foulest moments of cruelty in the film, and the fact she can both disgust us and win us over within seconds demonstrates how skilled a performer she is. The surprise comes from Amy Schumer, who has never before been given the opportunity to show off her skills with dramatic material. Her performance as Aimee is so considered, so careful, so devastating and so controlled that you leave the film wishing, hoping to see her take on material like this again soon. Perhaps the most powerful performance though is Jayne Houdyshell as Deidre, who over the course of the film is revealed to be the family punching bag. There are quiet moments with Houdyshell that fully break your heart, and more than anyone else, you are desperate for her to run away, escape, get out of this hell before the building itself caves down around her. The tragedy for Deidre, Aimee and Steven Yeun as the hapless Richard, pulled into the orbit of this terrible family, is that they are forced to shoulder the burden of the collapse, while Erik and Brigid proclaim the end of their particular days with little thought to anyone else. And all the while, June Squibb sits as the prophetic Momo, the pain and horror of this gathering erupting from her in confused, terrified burst of gibberish.
The idea that families are the true horror is not a new one, but at least 'The Humans' wears this conceit on its sleeve. Stephen Karam could simply have gone down the easy route, shooting it with more fidelity to its stage origins, but instead he embraces the language of film - and in particular, that of horror - to create a genuinely cinematic experience, designed for a big screen and surround sound. That it isn't always entirely successful (and at points it's a touch too obvious in its choice of techniques) doesn’t diminish from the fact that a strong central aesthetic and tonal conceit has been applied here, and in almost every way, enhances the impact of the story it has to tell. 'The Humans' may be a family drama masquerading as a horror film, but few recent horror films hit you in the guts quite like this, have you cringing in fear at the inevitability of this family falling apart. You don’t need to see the blood to know that, by the end of 'The Humans', the walls of this decaying apartment are dripping with it.