The Humans Review: A Surprisingly Scary Horror Movie Disguised As A Family Drama [TIFF 2021]

Thanksgiving is theoretically a good holiday. You gather together with loved ones and stuff your face with high-calorie food – what's not to love? But if your family dynamic is strained, a plaster veneer loaded with ever-widening cracks, it can often be a nightmare. That's certainly the case with "The Humans," a genuinely unsettling movie that's scarier than most recent scary movies. Writer-director Stephen Karam adapts his own Tony-winning play here, and he shoots the film as if it were a horror film, full of ominous shadows and even effective jump-scares. There's a good chance this movie is going to give you the creeps, simply due to how unnatural and haunting everything appears here. While there's nothing supernatural at work in "The Humans," it feels like there could be. As if there are ghosts lurking just off-camera, waiting to come out when the end credits roll.

It's Thanksgiving, and Brigid Blake (Beanie Feldstein) and her boyfriend Richard (Steven Yeun) have invited Brigid's parents Erik (Richard Jenkins) and Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell), and sister Aimee (Amy Schumer), over to feast. Also coming along: Brigid and Aimee's grandmother (June Squib), who suffers from Alzheimer's to the point where she's barely coherent. The setting is a duplex in Chinatown that Brigid and Richard just moved into, a place that somehow seems both cramped and cavernous. The duplex has a personality of its own. Crumbling and old, the floors creak, strange liquid drips down the walls, paint bubbles up, radiators click, and the upstairs neighbor is prone to pounding on the floor, creating loud, echoing sounds that reign down into the building.

One by one, the family members arrive, and there's a good-natured rapport among them that suggests this will be a pleasant Thanksgiving. But little by little, the family picks away at each other, like buzzards feasting on roadkill. Passive aggression runs rampant. These people know each other so well that they're able to push each other's buttons. They know just the right word to say to make someone upset. They know how to stick in a metaphorical knife and slowly twist it. 

From the get-go, something seems off with Erik. He finds himself in a kind of daze, gazing out the foggy windows and staring off into space. He reveals he hasn't been sleeping much due to nightmares – nightmares that involve a woman with skin covering her eyes and mouth. His confession of this leads his family to mock him. It's good-natured mocking, at least at first. But it's clear that the dreams have unnerved Erik. And it's also clear something else is on his mind.

Tensions Flare

As the night progresses, tensions flare. Brigid complains about her parents not helping her out financially. Aimee is distraught over a break-up. And Deirdre finds herself mocked and chided by her children for her religious beliefs, and for her struggles with her weight. But Deirdre can dish it out as much as she can take it, and she's not above cutting her children down to size with a cruel word or two. The only unperturbed person here is Richard, who tries very hard to make everyone happy – even though Brigid keeps shutting down his efforts, as if his inherent cheerfulness is something to be ashamed of.

The cast is dynamite across the board. The way they converse with each other feels wholly natural, as if they've been talking for years. Houdyshell, who reprises her role from the stage production, is particularly great, with a way of delivering her dialogue that sounds both oblivious and knowing at the same time. It's not a performance, it's not a character, it just feels completely lived-in, as if this is who she's always been. Even Schumer manages to deliver with her mostly dramatic part. It's genuinely impressive how well Karam does guiding his actors here.

The lack of an overall plot may turn some off, but "The Humans" doesn't need one. It relies on its characters and their various neurosis. The specter of 9/11 looms over everything – we learn that Aimee was inside the World Trade Center for a job interview on that fateful day, while Erik was outside waiting for her.

Often, when plays make the jump to the screen they can seem, well, stagey. Karam is able to mostly avoid this with interesting, and unnerving, shot compositions. Nearly every scene is filmed through a doorway or an entryway as if the viewer were someone eavesdropping on the family. This also contributes to the horror movie vibe of the entire film, along with the weird noises and other household problems – the lightbulbs have an odd habit of burning out suddenly, casting everyone into sudden darkness.

And while the majority of the film stays within the house, there's one particularly stunning shot on the roof of the building, the New York skyline in the background against the darkening sky. Anyone who has ever spent a winter on the east coast will recognize that sky, purple-black like a bruise, with wisps of black clouds. A cold sky. The type of sky that sends a shiver down your spine as you watch the last traces of daylight being extinguished, bringing on a darkness so total it may as well be infinite.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10