In The Humans, Tony-winning playwright Stephen Karam’s directorial debut based on his own distinguished stage production, there’s such a constant and engrossing sense of terror found in every discouraging frame that you’d be forgiven if you mistook it for being another moody A24 horror flick.
Every creak in the lopsided roof announces the presence of danger. Every drip on the stained, well-aged wall proclaims the presence of some unspoken evil. Every shadowed corner seems to hide some unseen demon, waiting to pounce. The devil is always lingering the details, too ever-present to ignore but also believably banal enough to be overlooked. The only thing disarming about Karam’s first film is how casual and refreshingly relatable it can be. It’s a family Thanksgiving movie with the foreboding atmosphere of a creeping, creature feature. Then again, is there anything scarier or more anxiety-producing than the existential threat of spending the holidays in the company of your loved ones?
Richard Jenkins leads the proceedings as Erik Blake, a world-weary, Scranton-based patriarch who travels to Manhattan with his oversharing wife, Deidre (Tony winner Jayne Houdyshell, giving the best performance) and wheelchair-bound mother (June Squibb) to spend the holiday with their cheery daughter, Brigid (Beanie Feldstein), her new boyfriend, Rich (Steven Yeun), and their other, Philly-based lawyer daughter, Aimee (Amy Schumer, doing some of her best work yet).
Since the movers are stuck in Queens for whatever supposed reason, the ancient two-floor apartment is left bereft of its belongings, thus giving the sparse or stripped-down living space a hollowed, haunting quality, as though it’s in some sort of putrid, purgatorial vacancy, away from the hustling excess of its otherwise busy city (I was surprised to learn that this one-location film was actually shot in the fall of 2019, so before the pandemic). As you can imagine, the absence of the material is filled with a wealth of ever-burning resentment, resignation, and regret to fill this seemingly empty environment.
Over the course of eating sogging food and overindulging in wine and beer, the sullen parents crack under some unspoken decay in their relationship that threatens to disrupt the well-being of this already-distant family cramped together for the holidays. Meanwhile, Aimee, who’s constantly escaping into the sanctuary of a rotting bathroom, is boiling over some turmoil that threatens the well-being of her own life and livelihood. We later learn that Rich has his own history of mental health concerns, while Brigid is often unafraid to voice any concerns or criticisms that she has for her otherwise-reserved family. Those competing factors — heightened by the creeping, cracking walls of this apartment that seem to threaten destruction upon this unstable stabilized family — come together to create a night that will produce all the drama you would expect from a prestigious drama, yet it carries the unexpected and reserved tone of an elevated horror movie, matching the crescendoing collapse of this well-dressed night.
Perhaps what’s most intriguing about Stephen Karam’s feature adaptation, which sadly opted to premiere almost exclusively on Showtime in lieu of a traditional theatrical release, is how the award-winning author opts to shy away from the elements that earned him such renown during its stage run. Where the play version had something of a dollhouse quality to it, allowing us to keep abreast of all the dysfunctional family members in one congested ecosystem of sorts, Karam’s feature shrinks everything down to a tight, winding, claustrophobic frame. Everything feels so airtight and compressed, you can almost feel the burning whiffs of hot air from the overworked air system (or the loud-mouth family members) racing across your cheeks. Or the bone-chillingly frigid air escaping from the frosted, winter-welcoming windows.
If The Humans, the stage show, was about being hyper-aware of what’s happening at any given second for these socializing family members, its film production is about keeping us in the dark about what’s set to follow, this encroaching sense of doom and dismay that promises something unshakably disastrous is set to follow what otherwise appears to be a casual holiday dinner.
It’s a curious and thankfully refreshing cinematic choice, allowing Karam to have the opportunity to repackage his own show for something that appropriately feels at home with the film medium. Where so many stage shows opt to try and recreate — often in error — the magic of their source productions, Karam skews away from what worked so well on the stage to see what he can do with his newfound lens, accompanied by sharp work from cinematographer Lol Crawley (Vox Lux).
It doesn’t always work, but it’s invigorating, nonetheless, to see the established playwright-turned-freshman moviemaker give it a try anyhow. And the moments that sing the most, especially toward its comfortably uneasy beginning, suggest that Karam has the makings of a bold, brazen filmmaker. While it’s easy to encourage Karam’s adventurous spirit, the first-time filmmaker doesn’t always succeed at keeping and retaining that ever-longing sense of dismay when he must struggle to bounce between the various unsettled members of this anxious, overburdened, God-fearing family.
Rather ironically, The Humans is better at establishing a supernatural entity of danger than it is at getting us into the frazzled minds of our wayward nuclear unit of a family, seemingly waiting to explode at any given second. When playwrights make the leap from the stage to the screen, they often know how to balance the story and characters but then don’t know how to capture their feeling in a visually interesting way. Karam, surprisingly, proves to be exceptionally adept at presenting his film in a rich visual lens, though he oddly falters when he needs to get more personal and intimate. Still, when you have an ensemble as exceptional as this one, you’re not going to fall astray for long.
Also benefited by a wonderfully eerie score from Nico Muhly (Margaret), The Humans is maybe a little too traditional in its storytelling to live up to the superb sense of terror provided by its sophisticated genre elements. As a chamber tale told with wit and precision by its confident writer-director and made more compelling by its core cast, this stage adaptation is never left feeling strained in the ways that other films based on renowned plays often feel needlessly suffocated by their own big-screen retellings. It retains the savage smarts of the show, while also carrying an inspiring desire to explore the newfound depths that can be brought by a movie’s comparatively more open landscape.
The results don’t match the same verve as the Pulitzer Prize-winning show, but it demonstrates an exceptional storyteller whose talents can certainly stretch beyond the limits of the stage’s confined platform. Though, perhaps that’s what’s ironically so refreshing about this movie adaptation: when given the opportunity to go big, Karam goes smaller, more intimate, and more immersive, resulting in a movie that only enriches the work that he brought to the stage. He also finally gives restless cinephiles what they’ve long pined for: an arthouse horror movie centered around being with your family on Thanksgiving. Be sure to eat it up.
The Humans is now playing in select theaters and streaming on Showtime. Watch the official trailer here.