The Humans features no ghosts, monsters, or poltergeists. It’s not set inside a haunted house, an abandoned building, or a tract of shadowy woods. And yet, it might be the scariest movie of the year.
Based on Stephen Karam’s Tony-winning play, and adapted and directed by Karam himself, The Humans centers on the Blake family as they gather in lower Manhattan for a Thanksgiving dinner. The mood is about as warm as a broken oven. Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell, brilliantly reprising her role from the play) and Erik (Richard Jenkins) have driven hours to visit their younger daughter, Brigid (Beanie Feldstein), at her new apartment, where she lives with her boyfriend, Richard (Steven Yeun)—but all they’ve gotten for their journey are terse thank-yous and cheap champagne in plastic cups. Aimee (Amy Schumer), their older daughter, is still reeling from a recent breakup and career setbacks, while Momo (June Squibb), Erik’s mother, has dementia and must be cared for at all times. The setting doesn’t help: Brigid and Richard’s home is a thin-walled, claustrophobia-inducing space that lets in barely any natural light. Each family member has something to get off his or her chest, and it’s as if their collective dread has permeated the foreboding premises. Or is it the reverse?
The unsettling atmosphere in the stage play gets magnified to fantastic effect on screen, turning a portrait of one American family’s difficult evening into something grotesque. Close-ups linger on the apartment’s dilapidated features—there are cracks in the ceiling, water stains on the walls, and pustules of paint threatening to burst. The sound design, courtesy of the Oscar winner Skip Lievsay, is an unexpected star of the show: The apartment seems eerily alive compared with the oddly silent city outside, with jump-scare thuds and clangs coming from neighboring units. More than once I caught myself gripping my armrests, terrified. The Humans began streaming on Showtime and playing in theaters the day before Thanksgiving, but the film isn’t made for cozy family viewing.
After all, this isn’t merely a movie about a dysfunctional family, but a deft dissection of that dysfunction. The Blakes share a brewing discomfort—over where they are, whom they’re with, and the baggage they should unpack, but can’t bring themselves to touch. Everyone seems suffocated by their thoughts: Erik has been having a recurring nightmare, Deirdre feels underappreciated, and Brigid is eager to prove her independence to her parents. All of them shuffle from room to room, as if searching for a location to settle their nerves.
But The Humans draws its most potent tension from the way that each of the Blakes tries to suppress their dread, leaving it to fester and then emerge in cruel behavior. When Erik finally reveals the details of his nightmare—which are rooted in his memory of the 9/11 attacks—he’s mocked. Brigid, resentful that her parents won’t help her pay for her city life, criticizes her mother’s eating, a subject she knows will hurt her. Aimee, trying to deflect attention from her personal troubles, jokes that the family has “a lot of stoic sadness”—a quip that ends up corkscrewing into all of their minds. The Blakes care for one another, but they treat one another callously, trading barbs that can come only from knowing one another so well.
The plot in Karam’s script is light, constrained to a single evening, but his vivid direction—along with his impressive ensemble cast—submerges the affair in the surreal. The camera follows the characters as they wind through the apartment, framing them in doorways or shooting them through filthy glass, distorting their features. When neighbors walk past the front door, they cast shadows that make them seem like phantoms. Lights blink out, night seems to fall faster inside the apartment, and the final stretch of the film features moments of total, disorienting darkness. In these dramatic flourishes, Karam makes clear that the Blakes are haunted—not by the apartment, but by one another.
The spookiness of The Humans conveys a larger point about the intimacy of family life. The Blakes’ shaky dynamic—their passive-aggressive asides and nonchalant appraisals—could be considered normal, but by using filmmaking techniques usually reserved for ghost stories, Karam challenges that normalcy. What’s scary, he suggests, is how accustomed people have become to such toxicity. The real threat is our capacity for tolerating malice from the people we love most.
Late in The Humans, Brigid and Richard go to the roof to grab some air. Standing above the building, they can finally take in the painterly purples and reds of the sunset that the apartment prevents them from seeing. The sky is immense, and they look exhausted but relieved, like two escapees from a haunted house. They should probably linger there, at least long enough to substantially reflect—but of course they head back downstairs before long. When you’re this used to your nightmare, you don’t realize you should wake up.