Horror movies don’t scare me. Startling me with a sudden jolt of music, editing and imposition isn’t the same as fear. Disgusting me with the grotesque butchering of bodies in horrendous ways isn’t scaring me. It only makes me feel sick, without actually making me sick. Monsters don’t scare me. People scare me. Supernatural forces don’t frighten me. Life frightens me.
I’ll rarely find fear in a conventional horror film the way I feel fear in something rooted dreadfully in humanity like 2011’s bleeding-lip psychological thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene or last year’s by-turns sneakily and crudely unnerving docu-mystery The Imposter. This year has certainly provided an at times delicious, insane, or just so sweetly disturbing array of art-house horror films, stretching from Berberian Sound Studio to straight-to-DVD Magic Magic. Those are all creepy enough, but none has ever had the devastating, ever-tormenting effect on my soul that Testament has.
You wouldn’t expect a 1983 film originally produced for PBS’ unintentionally juvenile-titled series American Playhouse to have much of a shelf life and, beyond lead actress Jane Alexander’s Oscar nomination, it hasn’t. I might have never come across it if it didn’t come up in my Apocalypse Cinema class, one of those college courses that seems designed to drain your will to live, right alongside Holocaust in Film. The film’s television budget is evident in the quaint wood-whistle music, the lack of finer photogenic polish in its appearance, and the irritating “good suburban family” dialogue that presupposes the nuclear family into their natural positions. Dad embarrasses his son in attempts to make him a strong young man. Mom does all the chores, the laundry, the dishes, looks after the children, and other duties of the model housewife. All is nice and properly sustained in the model American suburban family.
Then the 1980s happened, and with it the resurgence of nuclear threat, something the film plays out in a “what if?” style set-up. What if we had to deal with the reality of nuclear warfare? What would we do? Where would we go? How would we adapt? The answers Testament provides to those questions are that, frankly we’d do nothing and we’d go nowhere. We’d just keep on existing, until we didn’t. That bare simplicity makes the film such a raw, deteriorating experience of the grimmest fatalism imaginable. The changeover to post-apocalypse ought to burn out the twee sentimentality the film starts with, but the quaintness unethically persists, even as the nuclear toxicity rampantly begins replacing people with bodies wrapped in dehumanizing white cloth. If this is a horror film, it’s a frigidly apathetic one.
The eloquent alternate synopsis our professor gave the film was that the nuclear cataclysm that devastates the core family isn’t the literal radioactive fallout, but the how the nuclear family deteriorates in the absence of the father. The baby boy never grows up to be any more than a gleefully blank slate, though he grows up to be Lukas Haas in real life. The son grows to be a pillar of his community, even as the neighborhood dwindles discouragingly in population. And the wife, a mortifyingly withdrawn Jane Alexander, keeps on knitting. Keeps doing the chores. Keeps to her place, inside the home.
And so it goes, time and again through the same routines like an Armageddon stricken Jeanne Dielman. Nothing changes, not even the film. It still only knows how dramatize these events with a foot in PC saccharine gestures. Of course the mentally challenged Japanese kid makes it to the end of the film with a smile on his face! Obviously we must go back to those home videos, all sweet and gooey and caramelized in nostalgia. All these aspects are enough to make you sick, but oddly not in disgust of the film’s overhanded manipulation.
At a point, though, it stops being hopelessly artificial and just because so compassionately hopeless. The sheer weight of the immense loss, not just in human life but also history, both familial and cultural, becomes too much to bear. The film’s crummy aesthetic becomes searing in its utter lack of affect, reminding us that there really is no more to life than what the cold streams of light reveal. And at the end, there is no future. No hope of escaping the willfully, knowingly contrived characters. No hope for them to grow beyond their pre-apocalypse limitations, as they’re already fixed permanently in their domesticated roles.
No hope for a better film even, though I thoroughly believe that’s the way director Lynne Littman intended it. Through a PBS commissioned program comes a brutal embrace of the sickeningly stagnant end. That’s what made Testament so terrifying beyond belief. Not the threat of total annihilation, but the promise of life’s crude vacancy in the aftermath.