Junesploitation: On Horror, Sci-Fi & the Transgeneric Performance of ‘Human’

With Junesploitation in full effect, and June 20th set aside to celebrate sci-fi, I’m reminded that some of the darker films that have stayed with me are ones that combine elements of horror and sci-fi. These two genres rarely adhere strictly to the confines of their traditional genre boundaries and quite often you’ll find these genres bleed into one another. This is no surprise when you consider the number of elements they share in common: deeply unsettling themes, a questioning of reality, embracing of nightmarish circumstances and terrifying outcomes, the frequent presence of strange beings and creatures, and the overwhelming sense of alienation or isolation.

There is something especially uncomfortable about the characters in these horror/sci-fi blends that become distanced from the life they know, or whose sense of identity is disrupted; we witness the profound altering of their existence. Alienation is a particularly striking theme when coupled with a literal manifestation of ‘alien’, or of ‘otherworldly-ness’. In this point of confrontation, we encounter a distressed human whose appearance conveys a physical manifestation of ‘alien-ness’. This is a common thread for a handful of strange and unusual recent films which, if you haven’t yet explored them, are recommended for this fine Junesploitation day:  Under the Skin, Honeymoon, The One I Love, and Coherence. But be forewarned: there may be spoilers from this point on.

The unsettled (and unsettling) characters in these films are revealed to be something other than what they appear to be. This embodiment of ‘alien-ness’ entails that a being assumes a foreign form. We’ve seen before that evil creatures can shape-shift into, possess or inhabit, and even burst forth from their human shells, often initially sporting them as disguises (The Thing, the Alien series, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and so on). Similarly, there are also humans who transform into creatures, as seen in the countless werewolf, vampire, or zombie narratives that are revived in cinematic waves.  But all of these narratives focus on beings whose authentic human form is questioned. In some cases, we find that they were never human to begin with. In effect, the human form is made a foreign body, and while these figures may pass as human at some point or other, they are ultimately not fully at home in the human form. There is a revelation of an underlying sense of the uncanny, where we sense that something is not quite right with them.

The performance of ‘human’ is a curious and often sinister concept. Whether a figure is sporting a human skin suit, temporarily mirroring another’s likeness, slowly transforming, or functioning as a doppelganger, it’s clear that there is an important distinction that must be made between ‘human’ and ‘humanity’, through the specific combination of emotions, personality traits, lived experience, and relationships that define a given individual. Whether a figure convincingly conveys or successfully adopts a foreign form is another matter.

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Under the Skin (2013, dir. Jonathan Glazer)

The protagonist in Glazer’s Under the Skin is ‘The Female’, a lone figure specifically designed to blend in with humans, but to also stand out just enough to catch the attention of unsuspecting men. In actuality, she is an extraterrestrial, an alien who dons a voluptuous human skin like an outfit, and dresses to enhance the role of a seductress. She is intent on preying on the men of Scotland, and the attraction of her human disguise aids in the luring of these victims, who are then harvested in a strange and murky abyss. Over the course of her seductions, it’s evident that something deep inside this figure is moved by one of her subjects, compromising her ability to continue performing her disturbing task in an objective manner. There is a hint that she may be forming an attachment to the species she impersonates, sparking a yearning to know the human experience more intimately. But before she can delve too far, a violent encounter snuffs out that possibility, and she is literally stripped of her human skin.

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Honeymoon (2014, dir. Leigh Janiak)

In Janiak’s Honeymoon, a new bride and her husband escape to a cabin in the woods for a romantic rendezvous, just before the summer onslaught of fellow cottagers take over the lake. The honeymoon lasts less than two days before their blissful time together quickly falls apart. A strange encounter in the woods takes its toll on Bea, whose increasingly odd behaviour causes strain on the new marriage. At first suspicious of his wife’s previous interactions with an old friend in the area, Paul realizes that something more is at play when Bea loses her memory and fails to recount even the most basic details about her identity, from her own birth date to her husband’s name. Paul draws connections between the mysterious markings that appear on her body and the unsourced beams of light that penetrate the couple’s bedroom nightly, all of which point to an otherworldly intrusion by an unseen force. Bea’s very being is infected by another, leading to a disturbing transformation.

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The One I Love (2014, dir. Charlie McDowell)

We encounter another struggling couple in McDowell’s The One I Love. Though not explicitly horror-based, this unusual thriller is concerned with the same themes and underlying unease surrounding identity and the performance of ‘human’. At the recommendation of a therapist, an estranged couple, Ethan and Sophie, seek reconciliation at a couple’s retreat on a distant country estate. Both man and wife quickly discover the guest house on the property is actually a liminal space which allows a parallel universe to crossover into their own so that they encounter idealized versions of one another. The doppelgangers of their loved ones enable both Ethan and Sophie to glimpse a new sense of their relationship with each other. However, the romantic tension and ensuing drama these encounters create gives way to an unsettling new reality with these alternate selves.

 

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Coherence (2013, dir. James Ward Byrkit)

The darker tone of Ward Byrkit’s Coherence plays out in a similar fashion, but to a multiplied and more terrifying extent. On the night of a great cosmic happening, a dinner party among friends quickly shifts into a chaotic and unsettling entanglement. Over the course of the evening, a passing comet coincides with a power outage that sends the guests into a frenzied panic when they find themselves intermingling with other versions of themselves. As past tensions among the group rise and trust between friends weakens, the guests break apart into the overlapping realities. Inevitably, suspicion, jealousy, and violence take hold as the guests struggle to prove their identities to one another, while one guest in particular uses the confusion to her advantage.

Afterthoughts

The beauty of these films lies in the very fact that none of them fully dispel the disturbance that is brought about by the performance of ‘human’ or the existential crises experienced by their characters.  As they struggle to prove the precise elements of their identity and pinpoint it in each other, we witness the enigmatic way that these two genres – horror and sci-fi – thrive on the dynamic.

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