Right away you feel like you’ve entered a haunted house. Well, at least New York City’s version of one: an unrenovated pre-war tenement in Chinatown.
The paint on the walls is either peeling or has developed constellations of bulbous blisters, like a gross infection. Water damage has polka-dotted the ceiling with discoloration. Moans and creaks come from pipes and floorboards, but mostly are just omnipresent, their sources unknown. As light bulbs blow, darkness joins hands with the unsettling noises. The question of whether you’re hearing and seeing creepy neighbors or something else entirely is enough to cause mass blood-pressure spikes among those watching each time a character wanders alone into one of the apartment’s many shadowy corners.
From its first frame, The Humans delivers grade-A horror—though maybe not the kind you’re expecting. This is a film about things far scarier than what goes bump in the night. It is about a working-class family coming together for Thanksgiving.
Chilling. And cheekily—or spectacularly—it hit theaters and premieres on Showtime just in time for Thanksgiving.
Stephen Karam adapted and directed this adaptation of his own Tony Award-winning play, which happens to rank among the best-reviewed works of theater in the last two decades. He finds a way to translate it from stage to screen in a way that is undeniably cinematic without resorting to the hack trick of opening things up. In fact, things only get more claustrophobic as tensions between the family rise and the threat of specters lurking around seem to get more real.
But this isn’t a film about spookiness, per se. What’s so harrowing is how recognizable this family is—the Blakes, headed by patriarch Erik and matriarch Deirdre—and how upsettingly bleak it is to search for hope in their achingly relatable stories. In fact, in the end The Humans might even be uplifting. Again, talk about chills.
“What is the real terror in his life?” says Richard Jenkins, who plays Erik Blake in the film. “It’s scarier than any monster or any supernatural beings. It’s what we go through in life. These issues that these people have, every family has. They’re not an alien coming down and probing you. It’s all human problems. It’s a horror movie, and the scares that we go through and the jumps that we have are real because we’re in this world of mistake and regret. Those things are truly terrifying.”
Jenkins and actress Jayne Houdyshell, who plays Deirdre, are speaking together in a hotel suite adjacent to Central Park—a far cry from the digs their characters leer at in the film.
The Humans begins with Erik and Deirdre arriving in Chinatown, along with Erik’s mother (June Squibb), who goes by Momo and is suffering from dementia. They’re there to celebrate Thanksgiving with their daughter Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and her boyfriend Richard (Steven Yeun), who are in the process of moving into the apartment, as well as their other adult daughter Aimee (Amy Schumer, in a revelatory performance), who is joining them for the holiday.
Each person has a secret or revelation they’re anxious to make. There is resentment to vent about and grievances to air. Any bit of excitement—a new apartment!—is mitigated by severe disappointment, like someone’s loss of a job. Simmering under it all is Erik and Deirdre’s dread over a conversation they’re going to have with their girls. There is untold bickering and cruelty, and yet so much intimacy and indisputable love.
Your skin will crawl at the interactions this family has as the evening wears on—unpleasantries amplified by the ways in which the walls of the apartment seem to come alive and revolt. But you will also feel a desperate, empathetic connection to them, everything they say, and everything they’re going through.
Houdyshell is reprising the role that she played first off-Broadway in 2015 and then on Broadway when it transferred, winning the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play. (The actor who played Jenkins’ role, Reed Birney, won the corresponding Featured Actor Award. Both Jenkins and Houdyshell are on pundits’ shortlists for this year’s Oscars.)
“The brilliance of Stephen’s writing is that he is able to conflate those two seemingly opposed things,” Houdyshell says. “The stress and tension and fear and loathing of family forced to come together at a specific time and date to have a specific meal while, underneath it all, they really love each other very much.”
One of the advantages of having done the play before the movie, she says, was getting to talk to audience members who had seen the production. “Everyone kind of universally acknowledged that dichotomy. ‘That’s exactly like my family. It is a miserable day, and I love them so much. I gotta go call my mom right now.’ It’s this really conflicted, complicated thing that is our American life.”
Maybe that’s where the hope comes in, Jenkins suggests. “They all still come together every year, no matter how bad it is. Which is like saying, let’s try again.”
Some might not be able to look at everything that transpires in the film so hopefully. But there’s no denying that they’re hauntingly real.
There is trauma, resentment, and pain in all of the Blakes’ lives. But it’s not always so much for each other as it is for the immovable forces limiting them.
Brigid might be bratty and combative, but she’s also shouldering impossible amounts of student debt, all because she believed the false promise of an expensive education, the specialness of talent (she’s an aspiring composer), and the pursuit of passion. Aimee is wounded from a breakup, devastation compounded by the fact she lost her job. She had been on a partner track but was let go after missing too many days to deal with her ulcerative colitis—an illness for which she now must figure out how to pay treatment bills.
Deirdre laments that she’s been working as an office manager for decades, but now must answer to twentysomething bosses who make twice as much money as her. And Erik, who took a job as a custodian at a private school so that he could get his daughters free tuition, is visibly distressed, tiptoeing around a crippling secret of his own.
Erik and Deirdre take stock of their lives as sunset approaches. Having done everything right—worked hard every day, did everything they could to be people of faith and providers to their children—they have nothing to show for it. They can’t help their daughters financially. They can’t afford care for Momo. They can’t retire. Forget what the future holds—what was it all worth?
“It’s a collective stress in our nation,” Houdyshell says. “There are many, many people who are at quote-unquote ‘retirement age’ and feel they cannot. It’s an epidemic issue. It’s part of a current American tragedy.”
This is an average American family at a time of crisis, or perhaps, at least, a turning point for the idea of the American dream and how the canyons that have developed on the path to it have seismically transformed what it means to exist in this country. You could look at it nihilistically, as a story about resignation and bleak futures—or, perhaps, of stoic persistence in the face of static mobility. The act of soldiering on.
You have to wonder again if this is hopeful, or if this is perhaps, a cautionary tale about where we are today. The ghosts aren’t haunting the apartment building. They’re of the disappeared working class.
“I never thought of it as a cautionary tale because my experience was that people just identified with it,” Houdyshell says. “Simply identified, and not like, ‘Oh, we have to go fix ourselves because now we see how dysfunctional they are.’ My sense is that’s not people’s response to it. I think identification is a catharsis in and of itself.”
It’s a searing, provocative film told with surprising style. It’s a pulse-racing, wild ride. And, so it’s not a lost point, it’s also very funny. Isn’t that what families are, anyway? Fleetingly cross and perhaps terrifying, but also fleetingly hilarious—and in a way that only people you are so close to can be?
With that in mind, we thought we’d lighten the mood a bit with Jenkins and Houdyshell. The apartment in the film is truly dire. Yet, it’s the New Yorker’s curse. You look at it and think, you know what, this is a promising space. I think I could do something with this.
While Houdyshell never lived in an apartment quite that bad, she remembers that one of her first sublets when she moved to New York was a tiny roach-infested studio above a Chinese restaurant on 72nd Street. Across the street was a funeral parlor that had a neon sign that was lit all day and all night, seven days a week.
“My entire wall was a big picture window,” she says. “Even though I had drapes, the light shone through. I was there for six months. I didn’t sleep very much.”
It wasn’t in New York, but one of the first apartments Jenkins got with his wife after they married was so cramped they had a hide-a-bed. He woke in the middle of the night once to discover that there was a mouse chewing on his sock. “I moved my foot and he followed me and kept chewing it. I said, ‘I made a friend here.’”
Then there was the night he turned over in bed and saw a cockroach crawling on his wife’s shoulder. He hurriedly shooed it off her and tried to go back to sleep before she noticed. Talk about horror stories: “I didn’t tell her for a month.”