Pandemics on Film

The depiction of mass hysteria and societal collapse have been a part of film since around the release of the first Invasion of the Body Snatchers. With that movie, we were able to see how people could either be hyper-paranoid or walk around oblivious to the apparent changes to their everyday life. Some times these films are used to speak to societal fears of the time. As we are all under voluntary quarantine and exercising extreme caution, here are some movies that might get your mind off of it or make you even more anxious. Some are chilling in their observations of humanity, while others are cringingly horrible.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978, directed by Philip Kaufman)

From my review: This is a fantastic film and one we don’t hear about often enough. The cast is composed of some acting greats who are firing on all cylinders. I’ve always felt Brooke Adams was terribly overlooked, and this performance is one of those that reminds you of her strengths. Leonard Nimoy, who we never got to see outside of Spock very often, is excellent as the laidback Dr. Kibner, who becomes a very different character by the film’s conclusion. Nimoy plays both sides of the character wonderfully.

Beyond the fantastic cast, you have members of the production who are delivering masterful work. Cinematographer Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) finds interesting angles and ways to convey a character’s point of view that provides volumes of information. Chapman can obscure enough to keep us wondering and the sense of paranoia building. Almost every shot has some background element that hints at the concrete conspiracy or plays with the thematics of the film. Anytime a plant is present, it is grounds to get scared.

Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979, directed by Werner Herzog)

Director Werner Herzog holds a poetically bleak image of humanity in his head. If you’ve ever seen any of his other films, the most widely-known being Grizzly Man, then you know what I am talking about. He can so casually remark on how mankind is seemingly spiraling down the drain of existence. Nosferatu the Vampyre is a remake of the classic silent picture and improves on the original by bringing depth to that film’s straightforward premise. This is Dracula with the monstrous nature of the vampire amped up, he’s representative of the plague brought to Western Europe by rats, his own face rodent-like. 

The opening scene of the film is footage of the Mummies of Guanajuato found in Mexico. The bodies there were naturally mummified after being left to elements during the 1883 cholera epidemic. This is Herzog’s view of horror, not monsters that hide in the dark but naturally occurring diseases that operate with cold efficiency. The virus or bacteria do not care about the aesthetics of the ravaged corpse they leave behind. It’s this decay of such fragile flesh that fascinates and horrifies Herzog. His Dracula is a walking talking virus, hungry and unconcerned with the emotions of his victims.

12 Monkeys (1995, directed by Terry Gilliam)

From my review: The tone of 12 Monkeys is pitch-perfect, which shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with Gilliam. The denizens of the future are intense & bizarre, shaped by a nightmarish world. There’s also the trademark junky tech Gilliam loves, devices cobbled together from refuse that performs a task in the most awkward and clunky way. I absolutely love the nature of time travel developed by Chris Marker in the short and carried over to the feature. The technology of how is never explored, which is perfectly fine, instead it is a metaphysical process using the subject’s own psyche. Cole mentions at one point that he was selected for his strong memory.

Memory and misconception are a big part of the story, including the difficulty of communicating with others in a deluge of technological advancements. Cole ends up half a decade too far back and can’t use the messaging service his future handlers have put in place. There’s an encounter with a man in the asylum who has “divergent memories” and knows that his second life as a being on an alien world is false. This puts doubt in Cole’s mind about the future blight he comes from. Eventually, Cole becomes convinced he’s mentally ill and has imagined this entire virus scenario. This occurs at the same time Dr. Reilly encounters evidence that proves Cole really does come from the future. Because people are never aligned in their thinking, because they continuously misunderstand each other, the dark future comes to pass.

28 Days Later (2002, directed by Danny Boyle)

It came from an image of a running, frenzied zombie. Traditionally we see the zombie as a slowly shambling corpse, but in Danny Boyle’s horror masterpiece, they are snarling beasts charging at their prey. The aesthetics of the film are aided by its use of an early digital camera. The digital grain on the film adds the griminess of post-apocalypse London, and the difficulty of lighting with early digital actually aids the horror aesthetics of the movie.

This was the first time I had seen Cillian Murphy, and he does a fantastic job in the movie that made him a well-known name. He’s helped out by a tremendously strong supporting cast: Naomie Harris, Brendan Gleeson, and Christopher Eccleston. Eccleston is especially nefarious as a military leader who has gone off the deep end. There are shades of George Romero’s Dead trilogy, but Boyle tries to distance himself from that and make this his own vision of a zombie apocalypse. The movie’s opening sequence, detailing the moment the virus broke out of the lab, is a perfect terrifying leap into the type of zombie film you’re about to watch. 28 Days Later is one of the bleaker depictions of humanity on the edge of oblivion and will linger with you.

Bug (2006, directed by William Friedkin)

William Friedkin is a director who is no stranger to terrifying audiences. His 1973 movie The Exorcist is notorious for driving audiences wild. Since the 1970s, Friedkin’s status in Hollywood has declined. In 2006, he made a this fantastic, nasty little horror picture based on a stage play. Bug is about Agnes (Ashley Judd), a waitress in rural Oklahoma dealing with the disappearance of her young son years earlier. She’s getting strange silent phone calls she suspects have come from her recently released convict ex-husband. 

Agnes’s life changes when she meets Peter (Michael Shannon), a drifter who says he’s a discharged soldier who served in Afghanistan. Peter worms his way into Agnes’s mind and gets her to believe that he was experimented on while serving, and the phone calls are the feds following him, anticipating his arrival. Their mutual paranoia grows, fueled by shared drug addiction. Eventually, Peter is convinced that he has a colony of microscopic bugs implanted in his teeth and…well, you can see where this is going. Bug is a terrifyingly effective portrayal of the human mind driven mad by paranoia over biological violations and disease. If you haven’t seen this one and are up for something deeply unsettling, check it out.

Children of Men (2006, directed by Alfonso Cuaron)

From my review: This is the horror of late-stage capitalism played out on screen. History is distorted into patriotic nationalism, manufactured to give the populace the New Age sense of feeling good and never guilty about our history. One of the tenents of potential reparations to the descendants of slaves would be that the multi-century practice of slavery would be thoroughly taught in schools. This is something the German government decided was a necessity when it came to atoning culturally for the Holocaust. When CNN does its periodic questioning of diner customers in “Trump country,” they always spit out resentful answers when asked about the ongoing refugee concentration camps on America’s southern border. One patron, I recall, said defiantly that he would not be made to feel guilty about what was happening to the refugees. Gore Vidal summed it up when he said, “We are permanently the United States of Amnesia. We learn nothing because we remember nothing.” Or paraphrased more accurately now, “We learn nothing because to remember would be to confront ourselves and our crimes.”

Children of Men has proven to be a woefully prophetic film, a prophesy I am sure the filmmakers would have preferred remained in the realm of fiction. As with all great science fiction, it is more reflective of our present than any timeline we may go down. The core message of the picture is that even amid despair when it feels like an apocalypse, whether it be material or spiritual, is occurring, we must find objects of hope to cling to. When we are unmoored from a sense of what has come before and cannot imagine anything that could happen after, we will indeed be defeated by not having a light to follow. Here’s hoping that in another decade, we will have learned, and the world of Children of Men will be a distant memory.

The Happening (2008, directed by M. Night Shyamalan)

Now, this is an objectively horrible movie, but it is one of my favorite M. Night movies, and I have rewatched it multiple times in the context of a comedic farce. I saw this film in a theater in Puerto Rico with my then-fiancee, now wife. It was one of the few cinematic experiences where I had no problem with people talking during the movie. At one point, we could see a boom mike in the shot, something I think has been fixed in the DVD/Blu-Ray releases. Mark Wahlberg should have won an Academy award for planning a wholly alien being posing as a human. His decisions on line delivery are some of the most comical I’ve heard. It doesn’t help that M. Night has gone entirely off the rails and is trying to convince this horrible film is a good, tense thriller. The antagonist is literally the wind, which could be handled interestingly by a more thoughtful director, but here it is merely an excuse to just do weird, ludicrous things. I wish I could say M. Night was a genius, and this was all intentional, but looking at his body of work as a whole, no, he thought this was a grade-A scary picture.

Contagion (2011, directed by Steven Soderbergh)

From my review: Contagion is not a film that follows the traditional Hollywood structure. There is no main character, and big-name actors play roles that are killed off in the middle of the picture. Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns wanted to make the film as realistic and not indulge in melodrama. Burns met with Larry Brilliant, one of the epidemiologists who helped eradicate smallpox to develop an accurate picture of what a real-life pandemic would look like. Through Brilliant, Burns met other health officials connected to the CDC and WHO, which helped him get a handle on the many people involved in monitoring global health. It was during this writing process that our planet experience the H1N1 flu or swine flu pandemic, which Burns credits with significantly adding to research.

Contagion exists an almost documentary-like horror film, particularly with its chilling rewind to Day 1 in the movie’s final scene. That moment is like punctuation on the preceding story, showing how human consumption habits are directly linked to our potential extinction. Soderbergh didn’t shy away from showing the darker side of humanity amid this crisis, but he never overplays his hand. Looting occurs, but the criminals are very direct about searching for the things they see as valuable (guns, food, etc.). Internet journalist Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) is a disturbingly real character, a man who uses his vast platform to spread misinformation and unfounded conspiracy theories that lead to people dying. Alan claims he cured himself of the illness through homeopathic methods leading to violent runs on the cures he pushes.

The Girl With All the Gifts (2016, directed by Colm McCarthy)

From my review: The Girl With All the Gifts (based on the novel by Mike Carey) starts us out in the twilight of man’s fight against a fungal outbreak that has turned humans into ravenous hordes. The film is told through the eyes of Melanie, an 11-year-old girl who, with dozens of other children are kept in a subterranean prison, observed by scientists, and held at gunpoint by paranoid soldiers. As things often do in zombie films, the proceedings get chaotic, and our human characters are on the run. However, the survivors bring Melanie along who isn’t entirely human and whose origins reveal something much bigger about the fungal outbreak.

The overarching theme of the film is about the power of the older generation being lost and handed off to the younger generation. This particular passing of the torch is not one done willingly, and it is easy to see the conflict reflective of generational clashes in our own history. There is also some impressive play with the idea of how one generation processes the behavior of the new as mindless and evil when they simply don’t understand the underlying motives at play. Sadly, these themes are about the only good thing in this film.

It Comes At Night (2017, directed by Trey Edward Shults)

From my review: The film uses minimalism to great effect in the way it chooses not to explain the global situation in the wake of this unnamed virus. Instead, the story is kept isolated, so that way, the conflicts are magnified. There is never a sign that help is on the way, and the human desperation to survive grows out of that. It’s probably cliche to say It Comes is all about people as the worst monster you could encounter. Whether it was intentional of Shults’ part or not, I think the film evokes a lot of feelings about the current state of America, and the way members of communities feel continually split apart to the point of isolation. Where the minimalism doesn’t work is how undeveloped the relationships between Travis and his parents end up. I found it hard to buy into the emotional stakes between these three in the end because I never got a sense of what they were like before all of this.

It Comes At Night is a very well made horror film. It challenges the audience’s expectations in interesting and complex ways. The movie is not afraid to delve into the darkest corners of human desperation. You won’t find many jumpscares here. Instead, it is an in-depth examination of human beings forced into a corner. It Comes is the type of film that lodges itself in your brain and remains with you for a long time after, contemplating what would have happened if different choices were made.

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