Death, that’s what’s real.
Sonny Mallhi’s Hurt, a Fantasia 2018 selection, has a visual iconography with its chilling masks that are immediately evocative of The Purge, but also invites comparisons to other masked killers that are a tentpole of horror. Masks are a big deal in Hurt, with nearly every primary and secondary character donning one at some point in the film (it is Halloween, after all), and Rose wears multiple “masks” at times. With Hurt, Mallhi explores the idea that the masks we all wear, the masks of decency that we put on to hide our inner turmoil or trauma just to function in society, are always this close to slipping.
It’s Halloween in New Caney, Texas, and that means it’s time for the annual tradition of a haunted hayride, kind of a mobile haunted house that takes you through the woods to various spooky setups; a pantomimed axe murder, a satanic death metal concert, and a chillingly real public hanging scene. Rose (Emily van Raay) and Tommy (Andrew Creer), a young, almost too-charming married couple attend the event, but Tommy has deep mental scars left over from his military deployment, and despite being the bigger horror fan of the two, the violence on display triggers his obvious PTSD and causes him to retreat, alone, into the woods. Rose’s desperate search for Tommy over the course of the night is a harrowing experience, before it spirals into one hell of a nihilistic third act.
A departure from the supernatural possession story in Mallhi’s last Fantasia entry, 2015’s Anguish, Hurt is a deeply-grounded, well-observed slice of a typical American town dealing with typical American-style trauma in disturbing ways. It’s got less polish than I would normally expect from a Blumhouse joint, but it works here, giving everything a hint of realism, like it was shot on a phone by someone who’s just a little too close to the action. The aesthetic of the masks is well done, if a little lacking in subtlety (Rose’s ever-present mask is adorned with – wait for it – a rose), and is already the focal point of Hurt‘s marketing.
I always enjoy a horror movie where the characters are aware of horror movies. Rose’s offhand remark about what she thinks is “a Slender Man statue” got a laugh from me. A framing story about two children watching a meta-horror movie that mirrors the events of Hurt, seems to be an commentary on, or even an indictment of, the genre in a way. It chides those who ‘look’ because they’re complicit, but that message is a little muddled in a movie like Hurt. Taken on its face, the statement that the only way to understand the reality of death or fear is to experience it for yourself kind of cuts the legs off this and any horror.
Hurt wouldn’t work at all if the relationship between Tommy and Rose weren’t believable, but that’s never an issue with van Raay and Creer. Through sparse dialogue and subtle facial expressions in the first half of the film, the connection between Rose and Tommy is developed well and easy to buy into. But it’s when Tommy and Rose are obliterated as a couple that the performances in Hurt really “shine”. Van Raay, in particular, leaves nothing on the table when it comes time for Rose to spiral into confusion and despair.
One of the ways that makes traditional horror an appealing escape is that the villains in those films are usually clearly defined. Look, it’s a deformed janitor with the knives on his fingers, he’s probably up to no good. Oh, there’s that guy in the tattered coveralls wearing a hockey mask, maybe we shouldn’t fuck with him. But when the horror film turns inward, as Hurt does, the monster you become as you watch it is often scarier than all of those others combined.