When The Abyss Looks Back: Contemplating “The Void”
As horror fans know, after you’ve seen hundreds (if not thousands) of horror films, the actual feeling of being scared becomes more elusive and thus more desirable, which is why it’s always so exciting when a movie comes along that genuinely brings the fear.
The collective known as Astron-6 has brought us many delights over the last few years: Father’s Day, Manborg, The Editor. As brilliant as all of these movies are, they aren’t actually scary. So you’d be forgiven if you thought The Void, from Astron-6 members Steven Kostanski and Jeremy Gillespie, would be more funny than frightening. The first frame of the film makes it clear that The Void is something entirely different than what we’ve come to expect from the members of this team, however.
When people complain about mainstream horror films, it’s for a lot of reasons: clichéd writing, lack of character development, too much explaining, bad CGI, over reliance on jump scares that don’t pay off, or the simple reason that “it just wasn’t scary.” None of those complaints can be lodged against The Void.
What separates a cliché from primal fears? The thin line between those two concepts is where truly great horror films shine brightest and that’s The Void’s biggest strength. Yes, it takes its cues from a lot of previous films, notably siege movies like Assault On Precinct 13, sci-fi horror like Event Horizon, the Lovecraftian weirdness that marks In A Mouth of Madness, or even The Thing’s groundbreaking and balls-out crazy practical effects (these guys are big John Carpenter fans). It’s a cliché to ask “why reinvent the wheel?” but in the case of The Void, it’s apt, although it’s more like “why reinvent the triangle?” Sometimes the simplest scares are the most pure and visceral; that’s why filmmakers return to them over and over.
The opening scenes of The Void give us just enough information to tantalize us. Who are these people? What are they looking for? Why are they running away? The framing, lighting and location – dark woods, full moon, a lonely highway – have been used before, but they heighten the tension tremendously. A stumbling figure spotted in car headlights takes on eerie significance in the plot; it isn’t just there because it looks good.
The Void also takes elements of the current horror zeitgeist, such as fears of demonic cults or possession, and adds its own spin: there are white robes instead of black and instead of the relative newcomer Satan, this evil is an ancient one.
As for the characters, they are sketched out sharply. There is backstory, there is drama, there is believable dialogue. Exposition doesn’t seem heavy-handed, but natural. Like the best horror films have shown us, when a character has specific baggage, it’s best to exploit it as far as possible within the narrative, and this is something The Void does very well. When everything goes bonkers, no one in the audience questions the characters’ reactions; what they do seems completely in keeping with their personalities and the situation at hand, which is important when you’re dealing with the kinds of monsters the characters in The Void are dealing with.
As for the monsters, the practical effects are absolutely outstanding. We squint our eyes and crane our necks to see more of what’s going on, but skillful editing and lighting means we can never see too much, just enough to revolt and terrify us.
Similarly, from a narrative perspective, nothing is fully explained in The Void; we know just enough to be scared but not so much that the insanity on the screen becomes banal. The thrilling climax is following by a final, enigmatic scene that propels certain characters into new kinds of relationships where we can only wonder “what happens next?”
While The Void is an exceedingly dark movie, both thematically and visually, it’s never ponderous or self-indulgent. It may not be a comedy, but there are moments of levity that feel organic and help offset some of the film’s often-unbearable tension.
It’s rare that a film’s marketing visuals lead to a viewing experience that is exactly what we hoped it would be. This is not to say that The Void is predictable; instead, it feels like Kostanski and Gillespie broke into my brain and made the exact kind of film that I always want to see, but rarely do.
If ever there was a film that exemplifies what Everything Is Scary is about, it would be The Void.