Humans it all starts with a family reunion like any other. The one in which all the members participate because they have no other choice and which they would probably prefer to avoid. But in the end, they sit at the table – or at worst, face each other – in a rarefied atmosphere.
During the first half hour, Stephen Karam’s film plays with the idea of the forced cohabitation of quasi-strangers united by a blood bond. A premise which, of course, is part of a kind of story that explores human relationships.
But the filmmaker who is directing the adaptation of his Tony-winning play in 2016 is interested in a more difficult point. By wondering if all the suppressed anger, frustration, fear and suggested violence can be turned into threat.
The Humans could be obvious or, in any case, avoid asking the viewer to have the patience to decipher their symbols. But the director takes the risk of crafting a complicated map of singular, unexplained tension that effectively supports its plot. The film manages to arouse terror through a progression of situations. When the third installment arrives, it’s obvious that the script has managed to use the plot threads skillfully. Connect them in an unfamiliar setting and tell a new connotation about a pernicious gloom immersed in everyday events.
A family like the others, which encounters a perverse situation
The Blake family seems to fit every stereotypical narrative based on conflicting emotions. Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and her boyfriend Richard (Steven Yeun) have an agonizing relationship. He is so close to breaking that, during the opening sequences, the repressed angst is palpable and uncomfortable.
Maybe it’s just the fact that, like so many other New Yorkers, they’re near survivors in the 9/11 movie. the two seem trapped in a sense of hazy gloom.
It’s the half-empty apartment they share that her family will reluctantly come to for a Thanksgiving dinner. His mother Deidre (Jayne Houdyshell), his father Erik (Richard Jenkins), his sister Aimee (Amy Schumer) and his grandmother Momo (June Squibb) are essential guests. So obnoxious that the evening quickly turns into an exchange of veiled insults and venomous reminiscences. The premise clearly states that the tension of the atmosphere will lead to an overflow. What he never reveals, until his splendid home stretch, is that… what is happening is something much more sinister than one might think..
That’s when Humans takes the risk of getting scary without revealing the true nature of its story – is it horror, drama, a mix of the two? There are no clear answers in a story that sometimes becomes overwhelming.
Surprisingly, each of the characters develops a space of its own and in which the inconveniences manifest themselves until they become unbearable. Deidre is an overbearing and cruel mother. Erik is hiding in an inner tension that is about to explode into something frightening. Aimee, who gives Amy Schumer the opportunity to show a new side, suffers rejection from her family because of her orientation. Gradually, this dysfunctional family picture crumbles to reveal the poorly healed scars of something more toxic.
But Karam, who plays with the concept of hate as a manifestation of a greater evil, takes the confrontation to unusual and increasingly dark places. Soon, Richard, whose heritage as a Korean American becomes an important point, confronts Brigid’s family. All members of an ultra-right persuasion with Catholic roots.
Indeed, fear (at least, in the way Karam conceives it), is linked to the power of rejection and prejudice. The camera jumps back and forth between conversations, and soon it’s obvious there’s something wrong with people’s lives. this suffocating capsule of passive aggression.
It’s not just the secrets that seem to be revealed or the increasingly overwhelming demonstration of a discordant element on the periphery. Humans makes it clear that evil – whatever its meaning – is embodied in the nature of its characters.
How it manifests is a grim question that arises from many angles and when answered is terrifying. For the plot, what happens in front of the cameras is only a fraction of what lies outside the story. Which makes the meaning of a mystery within a mystery more and more overwhelming.
What Lies Beneath an Everyday Scene in… The Humans
Is the conflict told in the scenario a complex mystery? The film does not try to explain itself, and that is its greatest quality. Little by little, he shows that what lies between bickering, antipathy and outright animosity is a darker element than one might think.
Humans could be obvious or, in any case, avoid asking the viewer to have the patience to decipher its symbols. But the director takes the risk of creating a complicated plan, a singular tension without explanation, which effectively supports his story.
The film manages to instill brutal, heartbreaking terror through a progression of seemingly unrelated situations. A character attacks another by insulting him in a low voice. Another locks himself in one of the toilets to wait for news of an undisclosed fact. By the time the third section arrives, it is evident that the screenplay managed to use its supposedly independent plot threads skillfully. Connect them in an unknown setting to tell of a pernicious gloom, immersed in everyday events.
A dark and voracious family, the worst enemy
One of the man’s strengths is the way he details fear without showing the cause. There is no curse, monster or supernatural terror, or at least not one identifiable at first glance. But the anomaly lies in the middle of the mapping of conversations, hushed discussions, and especially the sense that it’s all taking place on an unnatural stratum.
Each of the characters has secrets to keep. Even worse, are manifestations of something twisted that goes beyond simple mutual antipathy. From brutal parents to the lesbian daughter, the object of discreet but painful attacks. The family dinner becomes a grotesque scene.
The director makes Brigid and Richard’s apartment more than a space. Light enters with difficulty, there are damp spots on the walls. The undeniable feeling that he is bigger than he looks. Corridors that curve in awkward places, closed doors and windows that are too small. Everything combines to give the house claustrophobic proportions.
Is it an optical illusion, an attempt by the characters to escape their reality? Corners are dripping and oozing moisture with a gloomy look, bathroom tiles are cracking in thick veins. Every little detail becomes more and more repugnant as the tone and cruelty of the discussions increases. Does what happens at the family dinner influence the physical reality of the house?
The lengthening shadows, the perverse feeling that everything that happens is destined to happen and implode in inexplicable directions. Cinematographer Lol Crawley creates a scene of unbreathable tension that somehow references the series Servant by M.Night Shyamalan. Similar to the production of Apple TV+, Humans wonders how a space can be the center of fear.
The answers, the terrors, the closed doors… The Humans
Throughout this twisted realm, the Blake family is an almost spectral presence. The fact that the script relies heavily on Richard’s point of view leaves the decision of what happens in the hands of the viewer. The horror is real, but not clichéd. She is also not direct. It is based on the inner shadows that turn ordinary situations into something repulsive and, ultimately, ravenous.
For Karam, monsters do not belong to other planes, dimensions or planets. They are the ones who know the secrets capable of hurting, weaponizing words and destroying. The fact that the director used this premise to turn what could be a drama into a psychological horror plot is quite an achievement. The same goes for his eloquent look at human nature. Perhaps the most violent, relentless and bloodthirsty creature of all.