The Horror of Take Shelter

For three glorious months this summer, Hulu subscribers could click over to the service’s Horror Movies page and, in the midst of films with possessed dolls, serial killers, and vampires, locate a film with different kinds of monsters: Take Shelter.

Since then, the game of Streaming License Hot Potato has landed Jeff Nichols’ 2011 film at Starz, where it’s classified as a Drama and Mystery. Many viewers would agree with those tags, especially since Hulu’s definition of horror isn’t exactly perfect, what with Parasite listed as a featured attraction on its “Blockbuster Horror” row. But upon further reflection, initial hesitations regarding Take Shelter’s placement in this genre quickly subside.

Any good scary movie needs a creepy, tone-setting introduction, and Nichols delivers with a premonition by rural Ohio engineer Curtis (Michael Shannon) of tempestuous clouds, violent wind, and rain that resembles fresh motor oil. While he awakens to a world without such threats, to the extent that his co-worker/friend Dewart (Shea Whigham) remarks after a night of drinking that he’s “got a good life,” everyday terrors abound, compounded by Curtis’ determined quest to make sense of his increasingly troubling visions.

In addition to a Job-like collection of stressors that include high-pressure work deadlines, a deaf daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart) in need of a cochlear implant, and generally loving wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) critiquing his every misstep, Curtis has more and more difficulty discerning whether what he’s experiencing is real or in his head. 

Meanwhile, Nichols is in no hurry to provide an answer, presenting these eerie scenes in a straightforward manner, only breaking from them when Curtis jolts awake in bed, accompanied by near-silent, gasping screams, a sweat-soaked shirt, and, eventually, urine-soaked sheets. The dreams seem wholly real as they’re unfolding, and their frequency and thematic consistency suggest that they’re more than basic nightmares.

Curtis’s subsequent visions include tornadoes touching down not far from his house and being bit by his formerly obedient dog. On a job site, he also witnesses an ominous swarm of black birds and intense peals of thunder on a cloudless day — neither of which Dewart notices, which makes him concerned for Curtis. 

Though ominous, these dreams and waking visions are merely a preamble to one where Curtis, driving through blinding rain, crashes after dodging someone in the road, and is rendered helpless as people break through the truck’s windows and pull him and Hannah out to a mysterious fate. Just as disturbing is one where zombie-like people attempt to break into his house, followed by the living room furniture levitating and immense cranial pressure threatening to crack Curtis’ head open, as if a demonic Charles Xavier is going to work on his fragile mind. 

Again, Nichols’ seamless placement of these moments within Curtis’ reality make them all the more jarring. Most modern horror directors wish they could craft scenes this tense and terrifying, and even in less blatantly rattling moments, David Wingo’s pleasant yet unsettling score, which resembles a John Carpenter soundtrack reimagined without synthesizers, consistently suggests that something isn’t quite right.

As he seeks professional help to figure out if he’s inherited the schizophrenia that sidelined his mother Sarah (Kathy Baker) in assisted living when he was still a boy, Curtis takes his premonitions seriously and begins expanding the underground storm shelter behind his house, investing in gas masks, and picking up surplus canned goods from the grocery store. Part of him may wonder if it’s all for naught, but he doesn’t want to take any chances, resulting in an obsessive drive that mirrors those of such tragically focused, single-minded horror movie loners as Jack Torrance (The Shining), Dr. Jack Griffin (The Invisible Man), and Seth Brundle (The Fly).

While these genre mainstays are either certifiably insane or irritatingly self-destructive, Curtis’ traumas resonate all the more powerfully because they’re happening to an incredibly sympathetic/empathetic character. The man unquestionably loves his family and accepts significant risks to protect them while simultaneously taking a rational approach to comprehend why he’s experiencing these premonitions. Furthermore, rather than evading the truth and living in denial, he’s honest to physicians and mental health professionals and takes prescribed medication in hopes that it will improve his situation.

Even his secrecy regarding the revamped shelter, the questionable home improvement loan to pay for it, and the dreams that prompted his actions come from that same loving place. Though it’s never spoken, Shannon’s nuanced performance suggests a fear that, if his bunker plans aren’t seen through, it would put his family at risk. Compared with death, a little marital tension, giving away his dog, and losing his best friend aren’t so bad, especially if the dreams that prompt all of the above wind up being true.

But after Samantha witnesses a particularly bad nightmare that sends Curtis into a violent, extended, seizure-like reaction, complete with blood from his mouth dousing his pillow and the bedsheets, prompting a 911 call and a visit from local EMS, he comes clean. “It’s not just a dream — it’s a feeling,” he says. “I’m afraid something might be coming. Something’s…not right. I cannot describe it. I just need you to believe me.”

The fears that he lays bare voice what he’s terrified of losing, and solidify him as someone worth rooting for — a “final boy,” if you will, committed to protecting those he loves and himself. Indeed, the first time I saw Take Shelter, I became so invested in wanting Curtis to be right and succeed that tears filled my eyes throughout the film’s final stretch, which finds him confronting judgmental, gossipy neighbors through a fiery speech that exposes their lack of preparedness, a dream of Samantha behaving zombie-like, and the family using the bunker when an actual storm hits.

In the aftermath, Nichols keeps the horror beats coming with a series of events that echo a classic “the boogeyman is dead — or is he?” structure where characters shortsightedly resume life as usual without actually defeating the evil at hand. What happens next is wisely left open-ended, and the ambiguity of the family’s fate is arguably more frightening than whatever Nichols might have whipped up — but maybe not. The personal, interpersonal, and psychological horrors that he presents over the course of two hours prove just as scary as possessed dolls and knife-wielding psychos — if not more so.

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