Wednesday, 30 March 2016

'He Never Died': Negotiating (and understating) myths in horror movies


Warning: Contains Spoilers

The low-key Canadian-American horror-comedy "He Never Died" (2015) is a film you’re probably going to hear a bit about in the foreseeable future, if you haven’t already. A recent Netflix addition, currently under development as an upcoming miniseries, it’s the movie your friend’s friend or die-hard horror movie blog recommended, the film you pick when you want something easy. At first glance the premise sounds both ludicrous and predictable, but in fact it’s a worthy addition to a list of recent films such as as the widely-lauded ‘The Witch’ (2016) or the problematic but interesting ‘We Are Still Here’ (2015), which have managed to achieve a lot by re-imagining generic boundaries and playing with audience expectations.

The title might remind you of the ending to the Mary Elizabeth Fry poem:
…Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there; I did not die.

This film isn't raging against the dying of the light, however. The main character wishes for death, but is doomed to immortality by his role in Judeo-Christian mythology. In fact the title suggests, and even possibly demands, that the audience recognize the boundaries in place here, yet it’s a while before one fully understands how profoundly and paradoxically under-determined and over-determined the characters are by broader moral codes and legends.

The film itself, like the main character, is all about understatement. Anti-hero Jack never gives any more information than he has to, and he doesn’t often have to, preferring instead to communicate via dismissive mono-syllables delivered with deadpan simplicity by a superb Henry Rollins. Initially benign, if socially awkward, grumpy, and mysterious, Jack is soon tearing his way through his town's criminal low-life with brutal efficiency, a one-man killing machine. His motivations are as dubious as his origin story. In fact one of Jack's only explanations for being an un-killable death-magnet is nearly thrown away in his wry dismissal of his considerable history: “I’m in the bible if that means anything.”

Jack is in fact Cain of Cain & Abel fame, doomed, as the story goes, to wander the earth as punishment for committing the first murder. The next line in the Bible notes that “anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over,” which in this film transforms Jack / Cain into an immortal who pulls bullets out of his head with ease and who is driven to consume human flesh. Why the inclination to munch on fingers and drink blood? “I don’t know why, but I have to... it’s the way it’s always been.” That is as close as we get to an answer, though given Jack's past and pedigree the metaphorical implications are somewhat obvious. As the father of murder, it's hard to see where the Cain-the-myth ends and the Jack-the-man begins. For the most part, however, his numbingly violent past and his biblical origins are very nearly meaningless to Jack... at least until a long lost relative shows up and raises questions about human relationships and moral responsibility. 

Bad day, difficult clean-up... we've all been there!

In choosing not to walk the audience through the original Bible story, to lay out the why’s and wherefore’s of Jack/Cain’s punishment, or to over-emphasize the various connections between Jack's journey and the biblical tradition of Cain (both of which are cautionary tales about reactionary violence and the call to be 'my brother's keeper'), "He Never Died" avoids a common horror movie pitfall. I couldn’t help but compare this film to work like "Supernatural." Cain does show up as a character in that particular show, and like many really interesting characters falls prey to the format. In "Supernatural," and indeed in many of the more mediocre horror films in recent years, writers provide such extensive background for the 'monsters' they depict that these characters risk losing their punch. Such figures are either humanized to the point of toothlessness or so wrapped up in an on-going, complicated exercise in universe-building that they are separated from the very fundamental aspects that made them interesting in the first place. Their stories are caught up in the larger narrative – in “Supernatural” Cain does kill Abel as per the original story, but there are extenuating circumstances which reflect the tense relationship between the main protagonists. The Cain and Abel myth itself is stretched to its breaking point, and ultimately Cain is just another villain in a universe full of people who need to be punched, another the case of the week to be solved. That's "Supernatural"s M.O., and perfectly reasonable for the format, but the problem with over-analyzing the mechanics of 'horror' myths is that the fundamentals which make those myths so relevant are often lost in over-kill.

"Cain slaying Abel" by Peter Paul Rubens, 1609

There is very little universe-building in "He Never Died"’ and it works in the film’s favor. The only other supernatural figure who shows up is simply known in the credits as Goatee Man, and his role is never explained. Is he an angel, a ghost, God, Satan? Is he some other Being outside of human understanding? Is he responsible for Jack’s predicament? Why does he intervene or not intervene at particular moments? Does it matter?

Jack's questions about his place in the world, and the audience's questions about what Jack is and why he does what he does, aren't going to be answered... not by Jack or anyone else. In fact, attempts to impose a recognizable 'monster' identity or code of conduct are played for laughs:

Cara: "So you’re like a vamp...?"
Jack: "Can we please not speak of it?"
[...]
Cara: "So why don't you have the [makes face] teeth?"

Jack has clearly gone around this question a few times before, and has not only failed to find satisfactory answers but is in fact somewhat defined by his inability, after all this time, to come to terms with his place in the universe. He cannot die, he is driven to kill, and there is no purpose or logic to it that he can see. He rants at the silent Goatee Man: "Why?! Just let me die!" His destructive and lonely identity crisis, spanning all of human time, is more horrible in that moment than anything else, understated yet fundamentally recognizable and important. Jack is mid-rant when his friend comes in and demands he help his injured daughter, and just like that all metaphysical questions take a back seat. Ultimately, "He Never Died" manages to offer a meditation on the human condition without beating you over the head with it's message - just as the original Bible story is less about the mechanisms of murder and more about human responsibility, this film finds the beauty and the horror in the pared-down, instantly recognizable myth. 




Cain is frightening and sympathetic because his story is so basic, and there is no attempt to turn theological mysteries into mechanical rules or to reduce metaphysical figures to easily-digestible (no pun intended) characters. When you find out that Jack is Cain the impulse is not to roll your eyes... 'Cain' is secondary, while Jack is rather a broader study of one of the most recognizable tales we use to examine morality. His action-hero 'superpowers' don't negate the fact that he is a very human monster going through a constant moral crisis he does not and cannot fully understand, and that for all his power he is in a situation completely out of his control.

108 Media is developing "He Never Died" as a mini-series, and I think it’s a mistake. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Henry Rollins' deadpan, hilarious, and emotionally-wrenching portrayal, and the tone and style of the whole film is spot on for a solid horror-comedy. However, part of the point is that the boundaries of Jack’s existential rationale are so ill-defined... it leaves room for larger anxieties without reducing a profound mythological figure to a Jason Bourne character with an extended backstory. "He Never Died" isn’t afraid to ask questions or leave those questions unanswered, which I think is going to become one of the defining strategies of solid horror cinema in years to come.


Kathleen Hudson is a PhD student in Gothic Literature at the University of Sheffield. She is always up for a horror movie night... tweet recommendations to @kathleenh42 or @SheffieldGothic and we may select yours for a live-tweet session!

6 comments:

  1. I don't usually comment on articles, but that was very well written and insightful. Thanks.

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  2. This article explains why the film lacked explanations. Which I was fine with, honestly. This review makes a viewer think about the tiresome formula we see in a lot of cinema. I have a new appreciation for this film as well.

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  3. This article explains why the film lacked explanations. Which I was fine with, honestly. This review makes a viewer think about the tiresome formula we see in a lot of cinema. I have a new appreciation for this film as well.

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  4. Very clever film. Well acted and great script. I would love to develop the character of jack and his battle with self determination and his reflections on his actions. If you would have lived 100s of thousands of years as you would have if you were Cain from the bible and you were blessed or cursed depending on your perspective with eternal life as punishment how would your id develop.

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  5. I think the push for a miniseries will actually make this movie better by offering the little closer needed at the end of the movie, while offering a deeper in insight into jacks character. I think the uniqueness of the movie plus the miniseries will make this s cult classic. The movie itself is definitely on my favorite movies of all time list.

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