A horror movie based on a book not written by Stephen King?! What a novel idea. When a movie is based on material from an author I admire, and one who isn’t at the top of The New York Times Best Seller list (yet!), I’m mostly just really excited that someone else shares my tastes enough to dedicate a chunk of their life bringing that story to a wider audience. When that author is Shirley Jackson Award-winner Nathan Ballingrud and that director is Babak Anvari, whose Under the Shadow was an internationally acclaimed hit, I really, really won’t complain.
Wounds, based on Ballingrud’s novella “The Visible Filth,” is not ambitious in scope or style, but its substance strives to show you something that feels completely new, even as it uses familiar tropes of haunted found footage and contagious curses. And it succeeds, mostly.
Will (a blandly attractive Armie Hammer) is a bartender at a roach-infested dive bar in New Orleans, passively surfing through life on his charm and a wave of booze, doing whatever requires the least amount of effort from him. Even before things go to shit, Will’s insecurity reveals itself when he sneers at people in college, whether it’s Carrie (Dakota Johnson), the girlfriend he doesn’t love, her snooty professor, and especially the beta boyfriend of Alicia, the girl Will does think he loves. Will plays at being the wisest guy in the room, dispensing trite YOLO philosophy as freely as shots of Jameson, but underneath it all he fears that he’s empty inside.
Of course it’s a group of know-nothing college students who leave a cell phone behind in the gory aftermath of a barroom brawl and cause Will’s life to not so much upend, but funnel towards an inevitable, horrifying act of self-knowledge.
Ballingrud’s novella is a masterpiece of dread, where Will’s crushing ennui collides with gruesome proof of something larger than himself. Anvari adapted the screenplay and it is overall faithful to the source, but after a well-paced first half, Wounds lacks tension. Despite being filmed in a city notorious for its seedy underbelly, anyone who’s known the utter misery of New Orleans in July might find Wounds far too dry and too clean whenever the movie steps outside Will’s bar. Yes, there are a lot of roaches—and these CGI bastards fly—but the beautiful, youthful cast barely breaks a sweat, the apartments are all too new, and there’s little sense of decay. You should smell those festering wounds; as with Se7en or Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, you should want to scrub your brain immediately after watching this, same as you do when you finish Ballingrud’s story.
Viewers who haven’t read “The Visible Filth” might find themselves a bit confused as the taunting text messages proliferate and any reason behind Will being so explicitly “chosen” for such an unholy blessing remains obscure. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially in cosmic horror, but watching Armie Hammer dramatically tossing a cell phone down doesn’t make for the most compelling viewing. Dakota Johnson, who has been picking some really challenging, artsy horror roles lately (see: last year’s Suspiria remake,) doesn’t allow Carrie to remain as much of a cipher as she might first appear, though she’s mostly in her underwear, staring at a laptop screen. You feel her frustration as Will’s resentment of her upward academic trajectory surfaces; they both know she’s too good for him, but you don’t know why she stays.
The real chemistry here is between Will and his barfly crush, Alicia, played by a radiant Zazie Beetz. She’s too cool for literally everyone in that joint and, unlike Carrie, she’s starting to wise up to it. Will is desperate to get in her pants not because she’s gorgeous (she is) or because he loves her (he doesn’t love anything), but because she’s just the latest tool he can use to numb himself to the howling void within. Some of the most subtly uncomfortable scenes in the film involve Will negging Alicia’s loving, stable boyfriend and trying to enable her burgeoning alcoholism. He wants to drag her down to his level.
While there are some overt and beautifully horrible moments here that are perfect for fans of Clive Barker and David Cronenberg body horror—particularly the final audacious scene—most of what made “The Visible Filth” so gripping was being trapped in Will’s head. Unlike one of Ballingrud’s more plot-driven stories (say, “The Butcher’s Table,” which is also available in his new story collection), an exploration of inner drama is harder to bring to the screen. Though Anvari tries admirably, Wounds gets a bit lost in translation. However, the baroque new mythos taking seed here bodes well for Anvari’s next project: an anthology series based on Ballingrud’s debut story collection North American Lake Monsters, giving horror fans plenty of time to read the books first and experience his world for themselves.
Wounds is streaming on Hulu in the U.S. and Netflix in the U.K.
Theresa DeLucci is a regular contributor to Tor.com. Her fiction has appeared in Tor.com and Strange Horizons. She’s also gotten enthusiastic about pop culture for Boing Boing, Wired.com’s Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast and Den of Geek. Howl into the void with her on Twitter.