By Christian Gay
Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski’s recent horror outing The Void might be more aptly titled The Cypher – the film is filled to the brim with winks and nods to horror and sci-fi masterworks, rewarding diehard genre fans while managing to deliver some wholly original horror imagery.
The film’s ultraviolent prologue, wherein the occupants of a country home are slaughtered in the still of the night, hearkens to The Amityville Horror (1979) before the film shifts to introduce us to rural police officer Daniel Carter, dozing in his patrol car. Carter soon discovers the bloodied man who has fled the prologue massacre and drives him to a local hospital that has been all but gutted by a recent fire. The hospital’s skeleton crew of four admit the man and begin treating his injuries. At this point, the film suggests a remake of John Carpenter’s Halloween II (1981): a small, ill-equipped rural hospital is besieged by a killer who picks off victims one-by-one. While the film more-or-less follows this trope, other horror references are quickly added to the mix.
At the hospital, we see a bedridden patient watching Night of the Living Dead (1968) on television, another not-so-subtle genre link for horror fans to latch on to. Like in that film, and its gory descendants The Evil Dead (1981) and Evil Dead 2 (1987), a small group of people are trapped inside a dilapidated building as it is besieged by mysterious undead forces. This televised forewarning doesn’t do the patient much good, however, as he is soon to become the hospital’s first victim, dispatched in a shockingly gruesome manner.
As the plot unfolds, it is unclear what the exact nature of the threat to our central characters is – is it the two mysterious gunmen from the film’s prologue, who show up at the hospital? Is it the unhinged orderly “Bev,” who begins attacking patients? Or is it the army of silent, knife-wielding and enrobed figures lurking in the fields surrounding the hospital? This latter group, for me, are the most chill-inducing, but the film does a disservice by not using them more. When some of the characters decide to go outside to retrieve a gun from Carter’s police cruiser, they discover the vehicle has been moved away to the far woods. A suspenseful premise used in horror films from The Birds (1963) to The Strangers (2008), here the payoff is paltry; the men get to the car quickly, and once the robed figures emerge, only one of them attacks the men and is easily disarmed. Like the masked killers from the Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980) franchises, these unidentifiable figures are made all-the-more menacing by the fact that we never see their faces, hear their voices or learn their identities. But, as the film’s characters are drawn further and further into the bowels of the hospital, there is never a truly satisfying confrontation with this mysterious horde. And these figures, robed in white and moving en masse in rural areas at night, immediately call to mind the Ku Klux Klan. Such loaded imagery exploits fears embedded in the American subconscious, but, without acknowledging this reference point or including a single black cast member, the movie misses an opportunity for the kind of biting social commentary that often resonates with the horror audience — the recent horror hit Get Out (2017) being a strong example.
One of the film’s most enthralling aspects is its incorporation of classic, analog special effects that transform bodies in horrifyingly vivid ways before our eyes. The camera maintains its unflinching focus as characters slough off layers of skin; sprout new limbs, heads, and tentacles; and spew colorful fluids out of newly formed orifices. These repulsive creature effects evoke the pre-CGI masterworks of the 1980s like John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London (1981), John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), and David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986). Two of the film’s most striking effects showcases come in the form of two unholy birth sequences. These horrific births are key plot points, and so, like many horror films before it, The Void seems preoccupied with birth, maternity, and casting the feminine in a monstrous light. The titular triangle symbol featured on the costumes of the figures in white and painted on the hospital walls in blood reappears in the film as a yonic gateway the villain uses to access another world, a gateway for life that here works in service of unholy horrors “worse than the demons of hell.” Like in Rosemary’s Baby (1967), the Alien (1979) films, and The Brood (1979), The Void’s evil propagates itself through a process akin to pregnancy and birth. An evil male entity exploits and impregnates women to achieve his diabolical plan, and therefore pregnancy is to be feared and subverted at all costs.
The Void, like Wes Craven’s Scream (1996), is best enjoyed for its meta reflection on the genre to which it is a welcome addition. The writing and character development are unremarkable, but the classic special effects and the reverence for 1980s horror are well worth a late-night screening. Watch closely; there’s a horribly disfigured man hiding in the boiler room, but this isn’t A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). Someone’s dragging an ax down a long desolate hallway, but this isn’t The Shining (1980). Devout horror fans will surely spot more connections than those listed here – and that’s the fun of screening this satisfying new genre film.