Finally, an A24 horror film about the terror of suspenseful family gatherings.
By Meg Shields · Posted on September 27, 2021
This review of The Humans is part of our ongoing press coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival. From reviews to interviews to checklists, stay tuned for all things TIFF 2021.
Brigid Blake (Beanie Feldstein) and her partner Richard (Steven Yuen) has just moved into a run-down duplex before the war in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Before they get the chance to catch their breath, they are given the task of hosting Brigid’s family, who have traveled outside the city for Thanksgiving. Brigid’s working parents Erik (Richard Jenkins) and Deidre (Jayne Houdyshell) can not help but fuss and criticize the couple’s new home by picking on the chipped paint and thin walls that pose a physical insult to the life they envisioned for their musically gifted daughter.
While Erik and Deidre complain and resent burnt out light bulbs and noisy neighbors, Erik is Alzheimer’s affected mother (June Squibb) fades into the background, as ignored and cumbersome as a piece of furniture to be negotiated around tight corridors and iron stairs. As the evening progresses, the well-meaning veneer of the family’s usual teasing begins to crack, revealing years of complaints and unpleasant developments in the family’s rapidly decaying dynamics.
Man marks the instructor debut off Stephen Karam, adaptation of his own Tony Award-winning stage play from 2014. Karam’s two previous interactions with Hollywood (2017’s Speech and debate and the 2018s The seagull) included manuscript credits. And if his work behind the camera in Man is something to go for, Karam has a bright big screen future ahead of it.
When it comes to phase-to-screen customizations, the same question always lurks in the wings. Namely: what does the film do to justify its existence? How does the cinematic language use to deepen, complicate or twist its source material? I can not comment on how Man does not transform or change Karam’s one-act plays (I missed it, for shame!). But a conscious cinematic decision deserves mention: this film feels like a direct horror film.
Make ample use of its new cinematic toolbox Man drums up easily and highlights the more awful elements of his story. Lol CrawleyThe film is suffocating and pinches the camera between tight hallways and small spaces, making the apartment both hollow and claustrophobic. Likewise, Tammy Douglas‘sound mixing allows the squeaks and groans of the young couple’s apartment to take on a particular hellish aspect; an exciting modern inferno of hydraulic bangs, dilapidated floorboards and architectural moans.
Man falls largely in exchange for the adaptation trap by feeling “scene” by relying mainly on dialogue. Although it may happen when the whole action of your story takes place in one place. Man has to invite comparisons to other claustrophobic script-to-screen family dramas; it is a rude candidate from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? School cooker, group treatment sessions with one place, where dark secrets always crawl out of the woodwork at the last action.
In the end, we’ve seen stories like this before to the point where the film often threatens to topple into self-parody. The fact that it is called “The Humans” feels especially (even ridiculous) on the nose. It’s like something Barton Fink would line up if the Coen Brothers had dropped their pretentious playwright into the 21st century. And still, ManThe decision to bring to the fore the latent horror elements of its theatrical genre remains an interesting and often successful addition that I have not yet seen made with this level of intention and finesse.
These types of plays (as well as their film adaptations) are often designed to exacerbate tensions and discomfort that make you want to crawl out of your skin. And it’s refreshing to see a film like this, leaning consciously into a cinematic language that allows a family terror trip to feel simultaneously anchored and expressionist. Excited family gatherings is horror programs, at their core. Why not throw in a jump scare and a sounding pipe or two?
Every single performance in Man is built-in and destructive; from Yeun’s infinitely humanly pleasant Richard to the ever – amazing Jenkins’ trip as the family’s hypocritically condemning patriarch. Amy Schumer ‘s reputation in comedy (for better or worse) causes her to influence the performances of Aimee, Brigid’s shattered and chronically ill older sister, to a complete surprise. She holds more than herself in a molding on the top shelf that burns on all cylinders.
Man is more than likely that one will compare with last year The father (another family-to-screen family drama featuring a character with Alzheimer’s). That Squibb spends the film as a haunting presence, always present and yet largely unrecognized, should dampen any lazy assertion about redundancy. Like Deirdre, Houdyshell is an absolute standout and returns to the role she inhabited the role in both the play’s off-Broadway and Tony Award-winning races.
Absolutely impeccably acted with clear and admirable efforts to expand his existential fear in the text to a decidedly cinematic space, Man never quite overcoming the clichés of a theatrical family dinner drama. Wherever well-executed, any narrative revelation and character archetype feels completely predictable: the parents ‘religious high ground relates to an unspoken sin far greater than any of their daughters’ shortcomings; disease and age are literally rolled from room to room as a fleshy, objectified memento mori, and there is a tried and true third screaming battle you can see coming a mile away. If “filmed plays” of this kind tend to leave you cold, you’d best do it Man on ice. All in all, it’s nice to see an A24 horror film that’s not a direct rip of Robin Hardy’s work.
Related topics: A24, Richard Jenkins, Steven Yeun, Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF)
Meg Shields is the humble farm boy of your dreams and a senior contributor to Film School Rejects. She currently runs three columns at FSR: The Queue, How’d They Do That ?, and Horrorscope. She is also the curator of One Perfect Shot and a freelance writer for hire. I can find screams about John Boorman’s ‘Excalibur’ on Twitter here: @TheWorstNun. (She her).
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