Tim Pratt
SF and Fantasy Writer

Archive for July, 2016

WhiskeyHorror: He Never Died

Tuesday, July 19th, 2016

This WhiskeyHorror report is a bit belated because I didn’t have time (I’m trying to work on a novel, mostly), but I wanted to get to it eventually: a while back we drank, uh, some kind of whiskey, and we watched He Never Died.

I came into the film with just some vague bits of knowledge: Henry Rollins was in it, and it was about vampires or immortals or something, and it was supposed to be good. I watched with my wife Heather and my stalwart WhiskeyHorror companion Katrina, and none of us had great (or low, either, to be fair) expectations.

It’s one of my favorite films I’ve seen all year. There’s a great tradition in crime fiction and cinema for “the wrong man” plot (pretty sexist, I know, sorry, that’s what it’s called), where an innocent/ordinary person is implicated in a crime and pursued by authorities, or pursued by criminals or enemy spies for reasons they don’t understand, or both. It’s an approach that’s been played straight in, say, The Fugitive, or The Wrong Man, but it’s so fundamental to crime stories that it’s been parodied a lot too, as in The Big Lebowski.

The Wrong Man is the initial premise here, too: Rollins’s character Jack, who appears to be a depressive shut-in who does little except sleep, walk to the diner, and sit unmoving in a chair thinking about screams, is confronted at home by angry criminals who make threats and demands. This may be the first time I’ve seen a wrong man plot where the man didn’t care why he’s been targeted; Jack doesn’t ask questions, and doesn’t exhibit any curiosity about the situation: he just wearily beats the guys up and throws them out, exhibiting supernatural capabilities in both violence and endurance, but no particular joy in the use of his powers. He’s less like a monster or superhero and more like a guy who finds a puddle of cat vomit on his kitchen floor at four in the morning and resignedly cleans it up before returning to bed.

The violence escalates from there, naturally, with the criminals haplessly attempting reprisals that never quite work out for them. The stakes get higher when Jack’s teenage daughter ā€“ a total stranger to him ā€“ shows up at his door hoping to make a connection with her father (and find a couch to crash on between benders, admittedly)… but this is not a guy with a capacity for connection. For example: at first it seems like he doesn’t even realize the nice waitress at his regular diner is flirting with him, but gradually it becomes clear that he does, and he just doesn’t care, because he’s too tired for all that business. He mostly can’t be bothered to deal with anything unless it directly impacts him, and in the face of threats and ultimatums he just shrugs, or doesn’t react at all: he’s like Bartleby the Immortal.

I’ve never seen a better depiction of the terrible weariness of being an immortal, of seeing everyone you know and care about die, again and again, until it just burns you to emptiness. Jack’s not some sighing vampire looking bored at an orgy, as we’ve seen in so many films: he wouldn’t bother with an orgy in the first place. This is more like chronic depression. His performance for most of the film is just a blankness of affect, punctuated by sighs, that somehow circles all the way back around and becomes charisma again. It’s weirdly a joy to watch. I’m a fan of a lot of Rollins’s stuff, but expressiveness as an actor is not one of his strong points, so the movie plays to his strengths, and in those moments when the weariness crumbles to reveal true emotion underneath (at one point quite dramatically), he plays it well, and the contrast is satisfying.

Jack’s character has all kinds of hidden depths beneath that stoic surface, and when his routine is disrupted, the movie becomes less about depression and more about addiction and backsliding into using… except Jack’s addiction is to violence (and, um, other stuff. I’m trying to not be monstrous about spoilers here). Eventually, almost despite himself, he does get to the bottom of why people are trying to kill him, and we get revelations about who and what he is ā€“ there’s some lovely misdirection about the nature of his supernatural qualities early on that points toward the right mythic space but in entirely the wrong direction, which I appreciated. The revelation was both perfectly right and not totally obvious (at least to me, and I’m usually a good guesser-of-movie-surprises).

It’s barely a horror movie, really, though there’s some gore and shock and horror. It’s really a character piece and a meditation on the intoxicating pointlessness of violence. Recommended.