By Nick Milligan
White robes. Ritualistic daggers. Scattered and mutilated corpses. Ungodly surgical procedures. Creeping dread. A slow descent into hell.
No, I’m not describing Australia’s public healthcare system – but rather the bloody mayhem crammed into fresh Canadian horror flick The Void.
The set-up for The Void is a familiar one: a cast of characters trapped in a building – à la Dawn of the Dead, The Mist, Assault on Precinct 13 etcetera. In this case it’s a quiet hospital in a seemingly desolate small town. The building is surrounded by hooded and robed figures, who are all in white except for a black triangle over their face. Imagine if a bunch of cyclopes joined the KKK.
The small group of captives inside the hospital includes small-town cop Daniel (Aaron Poole), nurse and Daniel’s estranged wife Allison (Kathleen Munroe), heavily pregnant Maggie (Grace Munro), grey-haired physician Dr. Richard Powell, and a nameless and resourceful father and son duo played by Daniel Fathers and Mik Byskov respectively.
When nurse Beverley becomes mysteriously entranced and murders a patient (typical Beverley), it appears something a little whacky is going on. From here the bodies not only pile up, but also reanimate and transform into wickedly grotesque otherworldly monsters. It’s quickly apparent that the captives have more to fear from what’s inside the hospital than the dagger-wielding cult wierdos outside.
Though its influences may be smeared on its blood-soaked sleeve, The Void attempts to bring them together into one original pulsating beast. Writer-directors Steven Kostanski and Jeremy Gillespie have been carving a career in the indie horror genre, and have directed alongside cult producer and Troma Entertainment mastermind Lloyd Kaufman.
Despite The Void‘s wild themes – which lean heavily on the work of H.P. Lovecraft, Clive Barker, Don Coscarelli and John Carpenter, with a dash of Cronenberg – it’s never played for laughs. Which is admirable, of course, but this decision means the emotional core of the film and its characters must carry a heavier burden. Unfortunately, the writer-director duo doesn’t quite find the balance between gleeful body horror and its more human elements.
From the outset, the filmmakers are keen to get us inside the hospital and The Void wastes no time in ramping up the nasty violence and palpable tension. So we have to get to know our characters on the run, learning about them as the carnage unfolds. This can sometimes work. But unfortunately Kostanski and Gillespie don’t come up with anything compelling about these people, and force us to languish in cliché. The reason for Daniel and Allison’s separation has been tried and tested by other screenwriters, and a similar tactic was used to stunning effect in Karyn Kusama’s recent mini-masterpiece The Invitation (the best film of 2016). But here the device feels hackneyed and under-cooked – a shortcut to empathy – and we don’t really feel for these characters in the way we should. The same goes for the father and son, whose wiliness grounds most of the action. You sense Kostanski and Gillespie are aiming high, but the characterisation – and performances in general – never soar.
The Void‘s strength is its visuals and it’s littered with practical creature effects that will make horror devotees squeal in delight – Stan Winston, Tom Savini and Rob Bottin would be proud. Tendrils, buckets of pus, nightmarish dripping maws, and maimed corpses that come to life like demonic marionettes – you name it, it’s in there. The production team has had a helluva lot of fun delivering this madness. It’s a shame the straight-faced delivery drains much of the joy from proceedings.
Editor Cam McLauchlin weaves some magic in the editing room, turning Kostanski and Gillespie’s striking visual montages (as our hero Daniel has odd visions) into genuinely gripping and visceral interludes. A black triangle hanging in the clouds over an inter-dimensional landscape – it’s a memorable piece of imagery. Having worked as an assistant editor on blockbusters like Pacific Rim, The Thing remake and Crimson Peak, McLauchlin takes the lead on editing duties for The Void and his kinetic approach wrings some arresting imagery out of the more thrilling moments.
You can’t help but admire Kostanski and Gillespie’s lofty ambitions – The Void is gushing with retro grindhouse nostalgia and has a purist’s eye. There’s even a sense that the pair might have designs on an entire franchise, despite the glaring parallels and visual nods to Carpenter’s original The Thing, Coscarelli’s Phantasm and, perhaps most notably, Barker’s Hellraiser. But unlike those movies, The Void doesn’t present us with an iconic hero or an especially memorable antagonist – there’s no MacReady, Tall Man or Pinhead. The Void is brazen – it wants to be both high art and full-bodied schlock. The result is somewhere in between and, despite a noble effort, Kostanski and Gillespie don’t quite get to have their cake and eat it too. They come close.
The finale of The Void hints at future movies. Keep your ear to the ground. It could happen, as this is the kind of film that horror lovers of all ages are likely to rally behind. It’s made by horror fans for horror fans and, hell, it might even be the best excuse to spend some time in a hospital since Dr. Doug Ross.