On fleshy fears and fantasies, video stores, and the growing redundancy of indie horror's frames of reference
The Void Screen Media Films
Director: Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski
Screenplay: Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski
Starring: Aaron Poole, Kathleen Munroe, Kenneth Walsh, Daniel Fathers, Mik Byskov, Ellen Wong and Grace Munro
Rated R / 1 hour, 30 minutes / 2.35:1
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)
It's getting harder and harder to distinguish yourself in North American indie horror. Or, maybe that's the wrong way to phrase it. Perhaps this: It's becoming less and less likely that you will distinguish yourself in North American indie horror. Most strains, anyway. There's a sameness that runs through far too much of it. At a certain point, it begins to feel like all these filmmakers rented all the same videos in their formative years, and they all grew up to do more or less similar variations on the same influences. I think by now it's safe to say we've mined just about as much as we're going to mine from the horror of the 1980s. At least until future generations of would-be filmmakers take a look at those movies from a different historical vantage point.
Somewhere along the democratized rental shelves that stacked the canonized Cronenberg and Carpenter and Romero alongside the cult respectability of Raimi and Coscarelli and Stuart Gordon, alongside an endless cascade of the proudly disreputable in fleshy primal fantasies, lies the genesis of The Void ... and a lot of other recent movies vaguely like it. The Venn diagram between the films Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski saw growing up and those any one of their many genre contemporaries saw growing up may not be a perfect circle, but it's probably a bit too close for comfort. To an extent this may be a result of my seeing and reviewing a lot of indie horror, but the sense that many of these filmmakers are sharing the same echo chamber is hard to escape. Don't get me wrong - this is far from the only example of a genre being stuck within the same frames of reference for too long. I haven't seen a decent American gangster movie in years, but I've seen a lot of bad ones that are all still trying to ape GoodFellas.
You get inspired to make movies, and you try to make movies like the movies that inspired you ... but the trick is delivering something that still has an identity of its own. And the bottom line is there's no reason to ever choose The Void over the many movies that influenced The Void, or the predecessors closest in spirit to The Void. There's much to admire here - in particular the practical effects. Combined, Gillespie and Kostanski have an impressive resume of work in art direction, makeup and effects - just within the last few years, one or both of their names are attached to Hannibal, The Expanse, Crimson Peak, Suicide Squad and the forthcoming It and The Shape of Water - and that expertise comes through loud and clear. But the movie itself never comes across as much more than the clingy, misshapen offspring of its influences in body horror and the occult. There are auteurs in film and television who make their inspirations explicitly clear and yet their work never feels like anything but their own; their repositories of reference points are used cleverly and wisely. Tarantino, Jordan Peele, Edgar Wright, Tina Fey, Dan Harmon/Justin Roiland. Furthermore, I don't mean to imply that my dismissals spread to indie horror as a whole. But the newer American directors whose work has distinguished itself - among them Oz Perkins, Robert Eggers, David Robert Mitchell, Anna Biller, Nicolas Pesce, Jim Mickle, Benson/Moorhead, and the aforementioned Peele - have carved out their own dialects, their own rules. Gillespie and Kostanski aren't there yet.
Maybe they'll get there. But if they do, they need to get beyond the mimicry stage. Frankly, they need to be more in love with their own images. The Void's practical creations are terrific, but their impact is lost in sloppily chopped-together sequences that don't take the time to let those creations settle in and become memorable images. There are scenes in which Cam McLauchlin's editing destroys any sense of their basic geography - which might not be on McLauchlin at all but simply a sign that the scenes were ineptly staged and choreographed to begin with. The filmmakers fail to convey the film's prevailing physical themes, giving us enticing but scattershot glimpses of the blood, guts, mutations and violations so fundamental to the film's ambitions.
And the film indeed becomes more and more ambitious as it goes along. It slowly opens up and those ambitions gradually reveal themselves. For the first hour-ish, it's basically Assault on Emergency Room 13, with a cop, a shoestring hospital staff and a few scattered patients basically cornered in a rural hospital building surrounded by white-robed cultists in the middle of the night. Where it winds up later on is somewhere closer to Fulci territory.
Its corporeal and metaphysical impulses are confidently declared, but Gillespie and Kostanski have mostly vague notions of what to do within their pastiche framework. There's a glaring obviousness to the character relationships, so it becomes clear immediately which details we need to keep an eye on, and how they need to pay off. Our protagonist is the young deputy, Daniel (Aaron Poole), who brings a mysteriously injured young man to the hospital. The nurse attending the patient is none other than Daniel's estranged wife, Allison (Kathleen Munroe). The reason for their estrangement (their daughter's death) immediately becomes the topic of conversation. Which is convenient for Dr. Powell (Kenneth Walsh), who gets to reveal that he, too, lost a daughter once upon a time. Meanwhile in the waiting room there is a pregnant young woman. If you think you see the mechanical gears of a screenplay turning before your eyes, you are correct. Horror is so often the most abstract genre - the most impervious to logical reasoning - that it's kind of a waste of time (and purpose) to try and tie every theme and plot point together, screenplay handbook-style, the way The Void's script does. That's just one way (among many) the film never reaches that surreal subconscious level it's reaching for.
That so many filmmakers today still take cues from the horror of three or so decades ago is a testament to the impression those images - both the highbrow and the low - can make on people. There are plenty of nice movies from the same era that never inspired a single human being to want to make movies for a living. I am curious, though, as the video-store generations age up and out, where the concentrated sources of inspiration for future filmmakers are, or will be. Streaming services ostensibly replaced video stores and, in theory, have much greater capability to introduce films to new audiences than any Blockbuster ever did. The ironic caveat is that, as the entire library of still-existing movies has become theoretically accessible, attentions have been directed elsewhere. There's more of a focus than ever on recent cinema; Netflix's streaming catalog offers very little from prior to the 1990s. (This is a separate and larger issue, but based on data from sites that track these things, Netflix currently has four (4) movies from the 1920s, one (1) from the 1930s, and a grand total of 140 pre-1990 titles.) Will the aesthetics of prestige TV take the place of the kinds of genre films (not to mention international auteurs and the standardized American canon) that have shaped so many late 20th/early 21st Century directors? (Or, will would-be filmmakers 20 years from now gravitate more toward television than film?)
Where am I going with this.
Oh yeah. The Void. And where it came from. Ultimately, I'm glad that filmmakers like Gillespie and Kostanski exist; I just wish they'd do a better job finding their own voice. Seems like every day I'm seeing a new horror movie riffing on Carpenter. Their inspirations being as obvious as they are, it simply got me wondering what budding cinephiles are discovering - and where - that will shape them later on. Personally I'm anxious to find out the answer, because low-budget horror desperately needs an injection of new blood, and new influences.