For all of the horror movies currently available on Hulu—including the “Into the Dark” installments, and the various classics that are being promoted as part of Huluween—there’s nothing on there quite like Babak Anvari’s “Wounds.” That’s as much a recommendation as it is a warning, as Anvari’s freaky body horror relationship drama has been designed to be disturbing and hilarious, but it's not rewarding in the ways you expect. It’s the kind of movie you follow into the abyss; it’s also the kind of movie that smash cuts to a close-up of a loud air conditioner.
Armie Hammer leads the film in one of his funniest roles yet, playing a bartender named Will who is letting his life fall apart. He’s lost a deep connection with his girlfriend Carrie (Dakota Johnson), preferring to scam on a friend named Alicia (Zazie Beetz) when she comes to the dive bar that he works at. He surrounds himself with strange folk, like a patron named Eric (Brad William Henke) who gets stabbed in the face in the first few minutes of the movie, and decides to not do anything about the gash in his cheek. The nasty cockroaches that keep emerging in the dive bar are just one facet of the grimy world Will has made for himself.
Entering into Will’s orbit are a group of teenagers, who leave behind a cell phone that night of the wounding. They’re in the middle of their own evil plot, and Will makes the mistake of picking up the phone, and seeing what they’ve been texting about. What follows is a freaky story filled with disturbing moments that may or may not be real, paralleled with the very painful implosion of a relationship.
“Wounds” (adapted from the novella by Nathan Ballingrud) marks the second project from the exciting horror filmmaker, who speaks excitedly about combining genres. His previous film, “Under the Shadow,” is like a wartime drama told as a supernatural nightmare, and won him acclaim from critics and genre fans. “Wounds” has Anvari telling a story in Louisiana, and he talks about how the movie is inspired by the likes of “Garden State” and “Hellraiser.” In the world of “Wounds,” created with choices of sight and sound that are the opposite of what American horror does, it all makes sense.
RogerEbert.com spoke with Anvari about his film, the inspiration behind a freaky scene involving arm pits, the smack-in-the-face ending and more.
What kinds of images from horror movies have disturbed you the most?
I always say I’m a massive wimp. I grew up being a scared child, and I still get scared easily. But I always had this weird curiosity to watch horror films, even if I couldn’t sleep at night or I was grossed out by them. In the case of “Wounds,” I’ve always said that the body horror is quite a love letter to Cronenberg, because I was obsessed with him. But there was certain imagery in Cronenberg’s films that always stayed with me, like Jeff Goldblum’s metamorphosis in “The Fly,” and I always remember this scar on his back, and there’s like hair growing out of it [laughs].
How does being a massive wimp—a self-proclaimed massive wimp—help you as a horror filmmaker now?
I think it’s quite exciting, as I usually share my own sort of fears and phobias, even my own dilemmas and questions in the stories I am telling. If the audience finds it disturbing and terrifying, then I go, “Oh, it’s not only me. I’m not crazy.” It is cathartic in that sense.
What kinds of phobias do you have? Do they inform the film?
I have a weird thing with arm pits, which you see in the film [laughs].
Oh right. That scene of Armie Hammer pressing on his arm pit is so weird!
They’re like these dark caves under our arms that are just so weird and nasty and sensitive [laughs]. And there’s a ton of things, when it comes to technology as well, I obviously love technology as a tool. It’s like a hammer—you can use it to build stuff or you can use it to kill someone. Since the internet age, there’s so many dark webs and things popping up on the internet that people have access to so many weird imagery and information that they previously couldn’t have access to. It’s almost like a rabbit hole, and sometimes it’s a bit dangerous to go down that rabbit hole. And also, you have this generation of bullies and trolls, people who affect our politics and create chaos in the world, but all behind computers and cell phones and social media, hiding in the dark corners. These are all the things that I find fascinating and terrifying.
It certainly sounds related to the movie—like when you talk about a black hole, I think about the tunnel that Carrie gets sucked into.
For sure, yeah.
So when you were making the short story your own, do you have a lot of the answers or explanations about things like the tunnel that are not revealed by character or story in the movie?
Yeah, both me and Nathan [Ballingrud] who wrote the story, we had these long extensive chats about what was presented with imagery. I think some of my favorite filmmakers leave certain clues. But the whole point of filmmaking and art in general, what’s interesting is to share it with the world and ask people to interpret it their own way. That’s more fun. In my head I have an explanation for all those images and the mythology of it, but I think it’s a bit of a cheat if you spoon-feed too much. Especially when it comes to eerie weird tales such as this, I think a certain level of ambiguity—as long as you leave some easter eggs so people who really want to get to the bottom of it can rewatch and connect the dots—I think a certain level of ambiguity is helpful. With our main characters, that’s what is terrifying them—they don’t fully understand what is happening to them.
Oh, so there are some Easter eggs. How meticulous were you about that?
I put enough clues that I thought it was sufficient that people can connect the dots together. But for me, I think the journey, the descent of this man Will, analyzing it through the lens of genre—that was the most important thing to me. I felt that if people want to know more about the mythology of it, there should be hints and clues and hopefully they can go analyze them in their own way.
That was something that stuck out when I first saw — it seems like genre is an especially important context. How intentional were you in directly subverting the experience of watching a modern American horror movie?
I didn’t set out to subvert genre or be a rebel. My motto is to always make a film that if I’m the audience member and I enjoy it, I’ll go rewatch it and try to figure it out. And I was trying to do the same thing with “Wounds,” and I’m a massive fan of mixing genres. I tried to do it with my first film and I tried to do it with this. I always say that I was inspired by Bergman’s “Scenes from a Marriage,” but then I thought how cool would it be to fix that with something like a Cronenberg film, or “Hellraiser,” which I grew up watching. And I love to mash genres together. And another reference for me was ‘90s relationship dramas, that was like my initial pitch. “This is like a relationship drama, but then bit by bit it turns into a nightmare.” I find that very exciting, like you’re in the lab trying to see what works for you so that hopefully it works for the audience.
What ‘90s relationship dramas were you thinking about?
“Reality Bites” [laughs]. And another one was not ’90s, but, “Garden State.”
One thing that does seem intentional with sound is that you don’t use loud bangs for jump scares—instead you go for abrasive high pitches. It’s the opposite of what people are expecting.
This is the weird thing—with sound and imagery in horror films, the audience is becoming more used to the formula of horror films, so me and my team were all like, how can we do the opposite of what people are used to? Silence is a lot more effective than a massive score to create tension, and purposefully I was like I don’t want to use any score. The rest is just sound design. I’m always trying to see how can I do something that’s not really expensive and kind of pull the rug from under people. Some people will get really annoyed by it because they want to be in that comfort zone, they want to experience something that they’re used to. But if they’re coming to go on a ride, might as well shake them up as much as I can [laughs].
That’s what I associate with that air conditioner cut, which functions like your idea of a jump cut. It’s so abrupt. Is there a troll spirit behind that cut? OR is that that more jostling people?
I think it’s kind of like … my reference points for those weird cuts were like Nicolas Roeg. His films are so trippy, and I always loved how he used to do these strange cuts in his films. It’s almost jarring but it’s also shaping you up and putting you on edge, like, If you’re not paying attention, if you think this is going down the route that you’re used to, you’re wrong. This is the beginning of things getting weird. That’s what we were trying to do. This appears to be a normal world, but trust me, this isn’t normal.
And with the air con, there’s a lot of references to cracks and holes, and dark spaces. That was another metaphor in the overall theme of the film. Air conditioners are dark, they’re like the tunnel in the film. And cockroaches are a big thing in Louisiana, but the dangerous thing about them is that they find dark holes and cracks to infect, and I think this film is about insecurities and holes within people.
With all of this being said, the film’s ending is also not the direction you expect it to go.
It’s interesting—I’ve realized that’s becoming a very polarizing ending. In my very initial pitch, that last image of the film was the endpoint for me. That’s the story I want to tell. After that, whatever happens to him is not this story. But this journey … the downfall of a man up until that point that he’s so lost, and has nothing. I know it’s a bit unexpected for people, and someone called it “a smack in my face,” and I’d like to apologize. But that was my intention … it’s good to be a part of conversation! [laughs]
When I was making the film, my hope was that it was one of those films that people can watch and rewatch and start talking about, rather than just … we wanted to have a lot of fun with it. It’s not taking itself too seriously, and I thought that it needs to be funny, without that sense of humor it would be relentlessly gratuitous. It needs to be entertaining at the same time. But I was hoping that after it’s finished that people will start talking.
I want to talk about the Confederate flag in Eric’s nasty apartment, which is of course above the dive bar. Do you feel that’s more part of the American background? It's an abrasive sight.
With the Confederate Flag, it was part of the conversation with Brad William Henke, who played the character. Who he is, and the Confederate flag has become something else or the last decades, a symbol of things, and the question was, is this man angry or a closet racist? These were all conscious decisions with the flag at the end. Brad was saying he knows a lot of people like that who get to a certain point in their life. They are lonely and frustrated and full of rage that they just sort of be angry at anyone and everything that they can find. My whole idea was that it’s Will going on that journey as well. Has he pushed everyone away? [He's] feeling so isolated that he’s going to become something else, if that makes sense.
Do you feel this is an American story? Did you approach it that way?
I think it’s a very universal story. It’s happening all across the world. I live in London and it’s definitely happening in the UK, and I think it’s just a very universal thing happening. It’s almost like about the insecurities that we have in our late 20s and 30s, it’s about “Who are we? What are we doing with our lives?” Bit by bit if you can’t figure out, it leaves a massive hole within ourselves, and when you start questioning your own existence, then you start trying to find something to give meaning to it. And that something could be anything. It could be alcohol and drugs, or some cult. But that’s when you start thinking I need something else to define my life. And I think in the case of "Wounds," that’s the general metaphor: he desperately needs something to give meaning to his life, he just surrenders to something he doesn’t fully understand.