Review: ‘The Humans’ uses horror tropes to heighten family drama despite not being a horror movie

While a family dinner can be a daunting prospect, I don’t know that I would call it a horror story. Of course, there is always drama and expertly deployed guilt and passive aggression, but it’s not like a demon is going to crawl out of the walls and eat everyone. The Humans, directed and adapted by Stephen Karam from his own Tony Award-winning play of the same, uses that feeling, that spectre of something waiting to cause harm, to heighten and enhance the drama around family dinner, and it works to great effect.

The dinner in question is hosted by Brigid and Richard (Beanie Feldstein and Steven Yuen). They have just moved into a large but borderline-dilapidated apartment, and they have invited Brigid’s parents Erik and Dierdre (Richard Jenkins and Jayne Houdyshell), her sister Aimee (Amy Schumer), an elderly, dementia-affected grandmother Momo (June Squibb) for thanksgiving.

Every character here is interesting and dynamic, and incredibly well performed. Jenkins is outstanding as the patriarch of the family, troubled by his daughters leaving their faith and past unspoken traumas until the latter act of the film. Schumer is also excellent in this nearly entirely dramatic role, while Yuen and Squib bring real humanity to the outsider character and the wild card. Everyone gets a chance to shine, and everyone is fully committed, and it is a delight to watch these actors at the top of their games.

Richard Jenkins as Erik and Steven Yuen as Richard in The Humans

Perhaps the most important character in the film, though, is the apartment itself. There’s the constant banging from upstairs, zero cellular reception, light bulbs that seem to burn out at just the wrong moment each time, and the walls that are rippled and bulbous with mysterious liquids that give them an infected appearance. This two-level set (which was apparently incredible on Broadway) contains nearly all the action. The entire time, it feels like it is digesting this family like it’s egging them on and feeding on their aggression toward one another.

The atmosphere is thick with dread for most of the film’s runtime. For something that isn’t actually a horror movie, it has plenty of creepy moments and jump scares, to the point where you may come to expect something to come out of the walls and assault the family more directly, but the only demons that are there are all from the families past. The spectre that hangs over them isn’t supernatural; it’s their shared traumas combined with knowing exactly what each other’s buttons are.

The Humans is an excellent piece of character work. It’s always a pleasure to watch actors do excellent work, and this movie has several of them. Each character feels authentic, but so too do all of them together as a family—dysfunctional sure, but a family nonetheless. While perhaps not all of us can relate to them, we can all appreciate the performances and the atmosphere that Karam has created.

The Humans debuts both theatrically and on-demand this Friday, November 26th.


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