“You’d be surprised at the things you find when you go looking.”
- Dr. Powell, The Void
In the past few years ,there has been a resurgence of late '70s and '80s aesthetics and styles in horror films, creating a particular brand of retro-modernism in the genre. This can be seen in films such as The Guest (2014, Adam Winguard), It Follows (2014, David Robert Mitchell), and The Neon Demon (2016, Nicolas Winding Refn). The Void (2016, Steven Kostanski and Jeremy Gillespie) continues this trend.
Filmed in 2016 but released to arthouse cinemas in the spring of 2017, The Void is an unabashed throwback to the John Carpenter films of the '80s, borrowing heavily from the The Thing (1982) and Prince of Darkness (1987). The Void is also a unique take on Lovecraftian horror, exploring the realm of cosmic horror that is not tackled as much, let alone as successfully, in cinema.
Much like Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), The Void is a siege film: Officer Daniel Carter (Aaron Poole), his estranged wife, and hospital nurse Allison (Kathleen Munroe), nurse-in-training Kim (Ellen Wong), two mysterious, armed men (Daniel Fathers and Mik Myskov), the pregnant Maggie (Grace Munroe), and her grandfather Ben (James Millington) are trapped in a fire-damaged hospital by a group of white-robed cultists, each marked with a black triangle on their hoods. Inside the hospital, the hapless folk are beset with monstrous horrors: tentacled creatures combined with human parts. The cultists, led by Dr. Powell (Kenneth Welsh), have been performing occult rituals – not satanic – but for something much older. Powell abducts Allison and uses her as a cocoon, forcing Carter, the two armed men, and a druggie (Evan Stern) who had escaped from the cultists into the hospital’s ruined basement, and into a pocket dimension a’la Silent Hill. Combating half-alive/half-dead humanoids, Carter eventually finds his transformed wife and promptly eviscerates her and her tentacled body with an axe. Powell has placed his child within Maggie, who births a large monster which chases the two armed men. Carter confronts a transformed/skinless Dr. Powell in his ritual room that accesses the titular void and flings both himself and the doctor into the abyss beyond, presumably ending the cosmic menace, if only temporary.
One of the highlights of The Void for horror aficionados was the film’s use of practical, physical effects rather than CGI in realizing the various monsters. The creatures recall heavily the aliens in The Thing: invisible under human skin, metamorphoses, combining with other entities, ever growing. This also dives squarely into the body-horror genre of films pioneered by David Cronenberg, in particular The Fly (1986). The creatures, in the hospital mise-en-scène, are displayed in all their gory glory – there’s no hiding in the shadows, only perhaps brief cut-a-ways when they are being hacked with axes. As in the Evil Dead series, complete dismemberment is the best practice.
Along with The Thing, The Void borrows heavily from Prince of Darkness, as well. The cultists besieging the hospital find parallel in this film, along with arcade texts, visions, and terrors from beyond our reality, and so on. Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond (1981) also seems to be a huge influence on the film, not only with its scenes of heroes fighting an undead horde in a hospital, but both films share extremely similar ending shots: a man and a woman in a dark, other world, side by side, trying to comprehend it all. The minimalist design of the film’s poster art – blue, black and white, a triangle with tentacles coming from it as a man sit in front, echoes Poltergeist (1982, Tobe Hooper), as well as Cronenberg’s The Fly, while the title’s blue typeface slightly evokes the font used in Stranger Things’ (2016-present) title. The overall design certainly makes one think of the great VHS artwork of the era (though many of those films failed to live up to their own art). Although the film reappropriates elements from '80s horror films, it doesn’t go into full-scale embracement of the decade. For example, the year the film takes place in is ambiguous; no one brings out a cell phone and the hospital’s computers all have bulky CRT monitors. This reservation to show technology could place the film in the late '80s, early '90s, or even throughout the 2000s.
Aside from leveraging John Carpenter films, The Void has been considered Lovecraftian, as well (a label also applied to Carpenter’s work). This is an extremely appropriate label, especially for doing something new and different with the subgenre. There’s been a few adaptions and interpretations, as with Stuart Gordon’s films Re-Animator (1985), From Beyond (1986), and Dagon (2001), as well as many short, art-house films, shown on the festival circuit such as the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival, that have their own individual takes on Lovecraft’s brand of horror. The Void successfully takes the Lovecraft fundamentals – pure cosmic horror – strips away the years of accumulated Cthulhu-pastiche, and makes its own mythos. The incomprehensible cosmic landscape is made as comprehensible as possible: vast, cosmic-dust expanses of space, floating mammoth black pyramids thought could very well house Nyarlathotep, and an infinite, barren landscape. Almost every one of these scenes portraying the black infinity looks as if they could be a cover of any of the albums from the Cryo Chamber music label who specializes in dark ambient music (and who has done, to date, three Lovecraft-inspired releases).
On the subject of dark ambient music, making an appearance in the film’s soundtrack is dark ambient pioneer Lustmord (Brian Williams). As most retro-horror films turn to the synthwave style of music, The Void bucks the trend by embracing dark ambient and the style works flawlessly, giving the film’s moments of cosmic emptiness a sound. Listeners of dark ambient can feel lost in its low rumbles and near-cinematic, yet empty soundscapes, and that feeling is conveyed in The Void.
Beyond being an homage to '80s horror and Lovecraft, The Void has its own themes that it explores. The obvious, of course, is the fears associated with birth and death of children, as multiple characters in the film (Carter and Allison, Dr. Powell, Maggie, and the older of the two armed men) have experienced the loss of their child, be it complicated pregnancy, death, or having their just-born baby turn into a monster. There are also themes of control. Dr. Powell obviously wants control of life and death, yet Carter seeks any control he can, no matter how minor. When things start to go awry at the hospital (He had to shoot a nurse that was turning into a monster.), he loses control when he goes into a seizure and experiences his first glances of the abyss. A state trooper (Art Hindle) admonishes Carter for his handling of the situation, and Carter, attempting to regain some control, practically pleads to be the one to call dispatch to report the situation. When the two armed men enter the hospital, brandishing guns and axes, Carter, as a police officer, should be the one in control, but he is not. It’s only later when he retrieves the shotgun from his car and leads a group to the hospital’s basement to search for Allison that he regains some form of control.
Though 2017 saw the release of high profile, critically and commercially successful horror films such as the remake of It (2017, Andy Muschietti) and Get Out (2017, Jordan Peele), in the indie scene just below the mainstream, there’s some amazing alt-horror being realized. As retro becomes more and more en vogue, there’s sure to be even more retro-modern horror films in the vein of The Void that will be released on the horizon. The Void, along with others such as The Guest and It Follows, have set high standards for the retro-horror genre, and it will be exciting to see what other films will follow suit.
Nicholas Diak is a pop culture scholar of industrial and synthwave music, Italian genre films, and Lovecraft studies. He contributes essays to various anthologies, journals, and pop culture websites. He is the editor of the forthcoming anthology, The New Peplum: Essays on Sword and Sandal Films and Television Programs Since the 1990s. He can be found at nickdiak.com.