Burns Like a Red Coal Carpet: Examining “Take Shelter”

From my youngest days, I have been a horror fan. I cut my teeth as a tyke on films like Alien, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Friday the 13th. I saw them at a lot younger age than I should have, but my parents explained that no one really died in the movies, so I could enjoy getting the crap scared out of me. It was one of my favorite pastimes, which probably tells you a lot about young Jonathan.

That thrill continues to this day, the only caveat, of course, being that it’s a lot harder to scare me, or even make me tense during fiction. Slasher flicks long ago lost their thrill; my eyes glaze over. The danger is not real to me. I mean, aside from the classics, of course. The problem is that one of the key elements of horror is to present something that’s familiar and yet completely unexpected. If you’re expecting a slasher, sure, it’s familiar and comfortable, but if horror was about familiar and comfortable it would be a lot more mainstream, you know?

If I had my way, the slasher genre would disappear for about twenty years, then return, much in the same way that Psycho set up the genre, but there was a significant gap between it and the films that evolved the concept.

There is, of course, the wave of zombie movies, which were my go-to horror from the early 90s to the mid-00, with what were once obscure films like Lucio Fulci‘s Zombi and some bizarre takes like Zombie Lake (seriously, nazi zombies – check it out, it’s so bad it’s great). Then somewhere everyone decided that zombies had to be everywhere. Now, don’t get me wrong – the original Dawn of the Dead will forever be one of my favorite films. Return of the Living Dead? Great horror-comedy. Original Night of the Living Dead, awesome. Hell, I even like the remakes of Dawn and Night for what they are. But I have major zombie fatigue. I should be eating up the Walking Dead, as I loved the comic, but some part of me is incredibly resistant. I need a break.

Oh, and I think we can all agree vampires started being about horror right around the time they started sparkling, although Salem’s Lot remains one of the most intense books I’ve ever read.

But you know, I found out that a horror film can still surprise me when we saw Take Shelter in Manhattan last week. After a long trek from the Port Authority up to Rockefeller Center and further on to Central Park, we decided to take a break at the Lincoln Center Cinema and take in an indie film. What could be more New York?

The movie was sold on the theater’s website as being about a man who begins having dreams about an apocalyptic storm, and the man begins to question whether these dreams are prophecy or represent him slipping into the schizophrenia that runs in his family. Life changes for him due to the changes in his life as he prepares for this storm that may or may not be real.

The Lincoln Cinema provides reviews of their films, posted outside of the theater, and we stopped to read more about the film. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the critic deemed it a horror film. It hadn’t really occurred to me that it might be, but knowing that the storm would supposedly rain a strange substance and transform people into, essentially, the walking dead – ravenous beasts that attack on sight – made it a little clearer. But that wasn’t the real nature of the horror, according to this critic. Those fears are pretty amorphous in the film – the fear is more about the vague feeling of unease, that there’s some sort of disaster just around the corner that threatens even our simple lives.

The more I thought about it, the more I could see that it was something that does need to be explored in a horror movie these days, and the film delivered brilliantly. It keeps you guessing up to the end, and there is always this faceless, unnamed monster in the room – the monster of fear, anxiety, and doubt. The only question about this monster is its nature: is it reality, or insanity? All through the film you see the effect of this monster on the protagonist’s (portrayed well by Michael Shannon) life – the character slowly comes unraveled. He becomes obsessed with building a storm shelter, and this tears apart all of the foundations of his life: his friendships, his life, his relationship. He ends up losing every single one of his connections to the world that once was for him.

I don’t want to spoil the ending, but you do get a definitive answer to the nature of the beast, along with a nice little twist. I’ll admit, I was proud of spotting that twist coming based on what I know of horror conventions. I mean, really: it does follow the horror formula, simply abstracting the threat. Just for one example, you have the innocents in the path of the monster (his daughter and wife, who is portrayed brilliantly by Jessica Chastain) as the noose tightens around the character’s neck. Compare that to Michael Myers‘ rampage in Halloween.

I legitimately came close to a panic attack on point during the film. I haven’t had that happen in ages. Even more amazing is that it manages to achieve this effect without makeup or the use of blood. Hell, even the CG is minimalist and used in service of building dread. It’s all about the psychological effect created in the protagonist and the viewer.

Admittedly, it is a bit slow at points, but that’s going to happen with a story like this. You have to build that sense of dread, that this character has high stakes going in. Some of that establishment drags. Could they have cut some scenes? Possibly. But I don’t think the stakes would have been quite high enough had they cut out some of the development scenes.

The film speaks for itself, really. It won several awards at indie film festivals and got picked up by Sony Pictures Classics. It doesn’t currently have a wide release – it’s only showing in Los Angeles and New York at the moment, but maybe it will get something wider. If not, I recommend checking out the DVD or Blu-Ray when they’re issued. I know I’ll be picking up a copy.

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3 Comments

  1. Fantastic movie; highly recommend!

  2. You’ve sold me. I will definitely check it out when I can. Thanks

  3. Pingback: The Dark Knight Rises and Addiction: Part 1 | Shaggin the Muse

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