Adapting a stage play into a film can be fraught with difficulties and it’s not often that one manages to rise above the strictures that such a process imposes. The Humans is playwright Stephen Karam’s attempt to do exactly that with his Tony-Award winning drama. His ‘opening out’ procedure is to use the apartment where the action takes place almost as an extra character. As the extended Blake family go about trying to celebrate Thanksgiving, the ugly, ramshackle new home of Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and Richard (Steven Yeun) has all the grim oppressiveness of a traditional haunted house. We watch the family conversing at the end of a filthy corridor or crammed into an awkward corner. The camera lingers on blistered plaster and rusting metal. It’s almost as though the place is sentient and spying upon them. The sense of impending dread is palpable.
But this is far from being a straightforward ghost story. The Blakes are haunted by their own sense of failure. Patriarch Erik (Richard Jenkins) seems obsessed with the idea that something bad is going to happen, and often refers to the near miss the family experienced with the tragedy of the Twin Towers. His wife, Deidre (Jayne Howdishell), laments another slip-up with her Weight Watchers schedule, while Brigid announces that she hasn’t managed to secure a grant to fund her career as a musician and will have to contemplate working in retail. Brigid’s sister, Aimee (Amy Schumer) is suffering from a debilitating illness and has broken up with her girlfriend, while Richard refers to mental health issues back in his youth. And Erik’s mother, Momo (June Squibb), sits in her wheelchair and unleashes the occasional string of what appears to be rambling gibberish…
The Humans is nobody’s idea of ‘a fun night as the flicks’. Indeed, it’s tortuous, uncomfortable and, at times, dismaying. And yet, it manages to exert a slow, powerful grip on me, as the tension slowly rises to boiling point. If there is no real resolution to the mess of unconnected distress that’s unearthed at the Thanksgiving from Hell, it should also be said that, in its own way, it’s a cinematic offering like no other and – to my mind – that makes it well worth checking out.