2018 is shaping up to be quite the year for horror movies. Between A Quiet Place, Hereditary and Unsane, we have some honest to god big names jumping headfirst into the genre. Of course, we’re also getting the 1000th entry into James Wan’s The Conjuring universe, but you can’t win them all. What’s the most striking about the recent rash of horror movies, is that it feels like we’re entering a new cycle. Horror tends to get stuck in a groove. Like a teenager, it’s a genre that goes through long obvious phases. From torture porn, to zombies, to the less well defined but stylistically obvious “chillennial” period, the themes are obvious once you step back.
If you asked me to sum up the last two or three years of horror, it would be difficult for me to pin point one theme, but based on the conversations around Get Out, The Purge franchise and now Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane, I’d wager we’re entering into an era of socially conscious horror. With Get Out tackling race, The Purge going for that double whammy of race and class and Unsane giving us a more nuanced look at mental health. I don’t totally buy The Guardian’s claim that Sodebergh’s newest is breaking boundaries when it comes to mental health, but it’s definitely a more tender view on the topic.
Although, “tender” feels like a bad way to describe Unsane, which truly lives up to its title. The movie kicks off with Sawyer Valentini (played by Claire Foy from your favorite monarchy-themed Netflix show The Crown) settling in to her new life in Pennsylvania. Work has its ups and downs, she’s great at her job and is making new friends, but there’s also a skeezy boss in the mix. She tries dating, but that’s a catastrophic failure. Sawyer’s problem isn’t that she’s new in town, it’s that she’s suffering from PTSD. She moved from Boston to get away from her stalker, but no matter where she goes, she sees visions of him. After doing a bit of light googling, Sawyer finds a hospital that offers counseling and she heads over for her first consultation. During her chat, she admits to occasionally feeling suicidal and suddenly she’s filling out forms, being whisked into rooms and becomes and unwilling patient of the facility. Soon enough, she starts seeing her stalker, but this time he’s real. He works at the hospital and she’s trapped until her insurance runs out.
The most striking aspect of the film is the way it’s shot, and I’m not talking about any of that iPhone nonsense. Soderbergh is one of the most recent directors to shoot a movie on a iPhone and while I’m sure it’s a great inspiration to the wanna be directors out there who don’t have to means to shoot on anything else, it always feels a little gimmicky to me. What’s fascinating is that every scene in the first half of the movie is shot like it’s security camera footage. The weird, unmoving camera angles quickly create a feeling of paranoia that makes you feel incredibly sympathetic to Sawyer’s problems. She’s not crazy, she is being watched all the time, only we’re her stalkers. We’re the ones tracking her every move. When Sawyer is eventually locked in a room with real security cameras and she finds out they’ve all be cut, it feels like the worlds cruelest joke. The one time Sawyer wants an audience, the only time she really needs someone to be watching her, she’s alone.
But that’s only one element of a truly bizarre film. Foy’s American accent is puzzling to say the least, but she kills it as the frantic Sawyer, showing us a very different performance than her buttoned up role in The Crown. Jay Pharoah plays Nate, Sawyer’s only friend in the hospital, and does a fantastic job as the comic relief. Although Soderbergh definitely falls into some problematic genre conventions with his character, like killing him off first (he’s the only non-white character in the movie) and having him act as Sawyer’s street smart sidekick.
There are also some clear pacing problems in the movie. We don’t spend enough time with Sawyer outside of the hospital to truly understand how her PTSD affects her and we spend far too much time with her in the padded cell. Luckily, whenever things start to feel a little stale, Soderbergh completely mixes it up. It’s the kind of movie that feels like it’s going to end any second, so you’re shocked when it keeps going.
Unsane probably isn’t going to be my favorite horror movie of the year, but it’s a fascinating take on America’s lack of real mental health services and how people “just doing their job” can cause real harm. Soderbergh has his finger on the pulse of real horror, with some scenes punching you right in the gut. The most conservative genre is finally getting flipped on its head.