All good ghost stories involve two things: a sense of place and a sense of lingering. The Humans (2021) nails both of these, using them to create an uneasy atmosphere as a family gathers for the holidays. The twist is that no otherworldly spectre fully appears, though the film teases the audience and family into remaining on edge for such an event. Set in a cramped, aged New York apartment, this is a claustrophobic long dark night of Thanksgiving. Sweet potatoes are mashed, sharp words are shared, and the thumping from upstairs may or may not be the neighbor.
Directed by Stephen Karam, creator of the original stage version, you’re likely familiar with certain aspects of this movie. The dad (Richard Jenkins) who’s bad at saying how he loves his children so he tries to fix things with his hands. The religious mother (Jayne Houdyshell) who is unsure how to handle the changing tides of her family. The daughters (Beanie Feldstein and Amy Schumer) trying to figure out how to stop living in the shadow of their parents. The boyfriend (Steven Yeun) playing peacemaker to all the different sides. Teasing the possibility of full scale horror we have cell phones that don’t work, light bulbs going out unexpectedly, and an elderly grandmother (June Squibb) who utters ominous phrases throughout the evening. Audience expectations, especially when it comes to an A24 production, are subverted in natural ways. Of course not every dinner ends in someone screaming “I am your mother!” Of course not every creaking door is about to reveal a ghastly apparition. The horror and heart of The Humans is rooted in the mundane but melded together in a way that feels fresh and unnerving.
Each family member has their own set of haunting bruises, imprinted by the world and each other. Now in such a close space, you can see each person mentally palming the knife that they’ve built out of defense and cuts are made. Pride is wounded, feelings are hurt, and people seek shelter in a bathroom barely large enough to turn around in. But with each slashing remark, there is a humorous deflation. This isn’t in a tired “So that just happened” tone but rather the natural ebb and flow of aggression and reconciliation that comes with a family that hurts and loves each other in equal parts. At one point, Steven Yeun reveals that he’s been dealing with depression. Richard Jenkins’s lost and exhausted patriarch responds that his family has never struggled like that. One of his daughters promptly shoots back, “No, we just have a lot of stoic sadness.” It hits home in its natural pain and snark, of parents trying to make sense of the world and of children frustrated by the human limitations of those who raised them. It’s like two neighboring apartments fighting to expand their walls into the space of the other.
If there is a ghost, it’s in the rusting pipes and cracked walls, their history painted over like so much scar tissue. The Humans is first and foremost a human drama and secondly an existential horror born out of architecture. The apartment is almost the main character, dwarfing everyone else or even obscuring them from sight. It speaks through enough industrial noise for David Lynch to nod his approval, each light fixture humming as if it’s about to give up its own ghost and the trash compactor down the hall clangs like a hurricane. It’s in this environment that these people are trying to build a life, as seemingly inhospitable of a place to make such an attempt. There’s a shot that took my breath away in slight panic of someone walking down a hall, their shoulders almost touching either wall. The sheer compression is overwhelming and metaphorical. Just as the family members bump up against each other, each distant thump or passing shadow is a sign that lives are being carried on in much the same manner just feet away. It’s just that this is a story so focused on this one family that each intrusion is jarring. In the precious few moments where the camera takes the audience outside of the apartment, it feels like a moment to breathe away from the trenches of familial intimacy.
The Humans occasionally threatens to veer towards the cliche of “Everything was going fine until The Past” but the actors and overall craft keep it away from the dropoff. To anyone who knows me, they’d be right in assuming this is very much a movie for me. It has sad people trying their best, genre expectations and subversions, and a surprise Philip Glass track. It absolutely belongs in the Thanksgiving Movie Canon but it is so much more than just a family shouting at each other during the holidays. It’s an exploration of a macro concept, the weight of lives lived on top of each other, through the intimacy and confinement of family and apartment architecture.
An MFA graduate from Oklahoma State University, Wyeth Leslie is a poet and author interested in the intersection between technology, the environment, and human relationships. His writings have been featured in publications such as The Vital Sparks, Lost Futures, and Haywire Magazine. He can be found staring into the abyss on Twitter: @Wyeth_was_here