*. In the 2010s horror films, or at least some horror films, started taking a higher road by making a raid into the territory of art-house and social commentary. In terms of the former it branched off into the realm of the weird, and in the latter case the woke (a label I’m using a bit freely here to cover a range of social-justice attitudes, primarily relating to race and gender).
*. I don’t mean those labels to be pejorative, though they certainly can be taken in that direction. The thing is, genre filmmaking needs a shot in the arm every now and then to jolt it out of stale formulas and conventions, and by 2010 (or thereabouts), coming down from “peak zombie” and with shaky-cam horror having lost its novelty, horror fans were looking for something new.
*. Weirdness and wokeness did give us something new, and there were some great results. It Follows and Get Out being a couple of the best examples. But weirdness could also turn into an invitation to narrative laziness and the construction of stories that made no sense with “twist” endings that had no explanation, while wokeness could become preachy and simplistic. Put the two together, and ridden to excess, horror was getting both pretentious and obscure.
*. Alex Garland, writer-director of Men, is someone who has never shied away from obscurity or pretention, so I wasn’t too surprised at how it turned out. Harper Marlowe (Jessie Buckley) is a young woman recovering from the apparent suicide (even that’s not clear) of her abusive husband. So she rents a ginormous country estate as a getaway. Right away my humbug alert was triggered. Why on earth would a single person want to rent such a huge place for a bit of quiet time? It’s ridiculous.
*. But then I guess we’re meant to suppose we’ve removed to fantasyland: a place of mythic greenness with apparently very limited phone service. The fact that phones can’t get a signal is a well-worn horror cliché by now, as is the idea that in an emergency Harper doesn’t even know the address of the place she’s just rented. Like I say: fantasyland.
*. To make not much of a story even shorter, Harper finds the village she’s staying in to be populated by a bunch of guys who are really only one guy, played by Rory Kinnear. Being men, they range from threatening to unhelpful. Whether any of them actually exist or are just products of Harper’s sense of guilt, or whether they’re emanations of some supernatural, ancient force, the embodiment of the Green Man of local lore, is up for grabs. And then maybe they’re just meant to illustrate the point that all men are the same (that is, shit), and the question of whether the way they manifest makes any sense or not can be left hanging.
*. OK, there’s the weird and the woke for you. Grounded in a home-invasion plot and what’s come to be called folk horror. But compare this to an ur-text of folk horror like The Wicker Man and you can see the difference. The Wicker Man made sense, and its twist at the end was truly disturbing. Men isn’t into making sense so much as making a point.
*. Garland isn’t without talent. But Men starts out as atmospheric and creepy and quickly turns into something dull and stupid. The serial births at the end go on too long, and Harper looks like she’s gotten bored of the spectacle before it’s halfway through. I kept imagining her turning away and saying “you’re all just being silly now.” And none if it is anything new. For scenes of body-horror birthing, the end of The Brood was more horrifying and shocking, the end of Gozu weirder, and the end of The Amulet a more powerful feminist statement. Rory Kinnear’s bloody self-recycling is only repetitive and ridiculous, with a climax (or punchline) you’ll have seen coming long in advance.
*. The direction taken by the horror that I’ve been describing can work if it’s part of a genuine effort in making it new. But just being weird and woke is already starting to feel stale, and this is a movie that’s basically going over tropes that have been well mined already, without the courtesy of being coherent. It looks good and the performances are nice to watch though, which is enough to give it a passing grade in the present climate anyway.