The Humans

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When is a horror movie not a horror movie? Or should I say, when does a movie that's not intended to be horror become a horror movie? In either case, the answer is The Humans. Writer/director Stephen Karam adapts his Broadway play for the screen. In reality, the film is a family drama about a clan coming together for Thanksgiving. The way it's staged and filmed, though, intentionally replicates the atmosphere of a fright flick. You won't find an ounce of blood or a single instance of violence here, yet the act of watching the movie is nerve-rattling.

The entire story takes place inside a Manhattan pre-war duplex that's photographed ominously in the opening credits sequence. The Blake family gathers for Thanksgiving dinner inside. Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and her boyfriend Richard (Steven Yeun) have just purchased it, and the movers have yet to bring the furniture, so their cavernous unit is mostly empty. Joining them are Brigid's sister Aimee (Amy Schumer), who just broke up with her girlfriend; her parents Erik (Richard Jenkins) and Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell); and her senile grandmother Momo (June Squibb).

Of course, some characters have secrets that will be revealed over the course of the evening. Others have resentments that are destined to rise to the surface. What would a dysfunctional family drama be without those things? To preserve how they manifest themselves, I won't divulge them.

Several factors differentiate The Humans from similarly-themed films, starting with the way it's shot. Karam wants us to feel unsettled, so he approaches the material in a manner specifically designed to put us on edge. The camera is often far away from the actors, sometimes even in a different room. Close-ups are rare. This has the effect of making us feel like we've broken into the apartment and are spying on the Blakes. If you've seen any of the Friday the 13th and Halloween pictures, the technique will be familiar to you, as it's how they convey that Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers are stalking their victims. When the camera does come in closer, it moves around the characters in a predatory fashion.

An eerie, borderline subliminal musical score adds to the impact, as does the inclusion of repeated shots focusing on the building's decay. Erik, in particular, doesn't like where his daughter will be living. He constantly notices the rusty pipes, the weird bulges in the walls, and the stains on the ceiling. These elements all combine to create an ambiance that makes the place feel dangerous.

With that vibe established, The Humans then proceeds to take a nice, lower-key stance in unfolding its events. Films of this type often have big monologues and showy dialogue. Karam avoids that, having his characters speak in simple language that sounds like how people really talk. The actors therefore have room to create a group dynamic that's thoroughly authentic. You won't find a weak link here. Each of the performers digs deep, expertly showing what's going on both above and below the surface, without ever needing to over-emote. Using the heightened tone to back up the naturalistic performances and dialogue drives home the potency of the struggles this family faces as a simple holiday gathering becomes an occasion of unhappiness and regret.

The Humans starts to feel a little claustrophobic after a while, and the meaning of the slightly abstract ending is hard to pinpoint. (This was apparently a common criticism of the stage production, too). Those are fairly minor flaws. By and large, the film is a poignant, honest look at how family members navigate problems within their system. We're stuck with our families, the story implies, so we're also stuck with the issues of each individual person, and what impacts them automatically impacts us. Whether we let that bond us tighter or pull us apart is up to us.

out of four

The Humans is rated R for some sexual material and language. The running time is 1 hour and 48 minutes.