Caitlin Cronenberg’s first feature, ‘Humane’, proves that horror is all in the family

First time director Caitlin Cronenberg debuts with deadly family drama

Where: In theatres
What: Movie, 102 mins.
When: Fri., April 26
Genre: Thriller
Rating: NNN (out of 5)
Why you should watch: Caitlin Cronenberg’s feature debut mines pressing contemporary issues for a nail-biting, dystopian thriller about a dysfunctional family.

CAITLIN CRONENBERG doesn’t like horror films. This may seem odd for the daughter of David Cronenberg, one of the most beloved horror directors of all time. But with her first feature, Humane, which chronicles a family reunion in a dystopian near-future, Cronenberg was more inspired by dramas and thrillers than the freakier fare her family name is known for.

“I still rarely watch straightforward horror films because I’m a total chicken about it,” she tells NEXT over the phone, “I love thrillers, but the incredibly violent slasher style that people love, I still find I can barely handle those.” Despite her lack of enthusiasm for watching gore, there are a few scenes in Humane that suggest Cronenberg isn’t afraid of making a bloody mess.

With Humane, Cronenberg was deliberately playing with genre expectations. “I’ve seen more films lately that cross genre lines, and it feels very freeing to say ‘I don’t have to include a jump scare in this film to be considered a genre film.’”

In fact, most of the runtime is devoted to a family drama with a speculative spin, but a sense of dread hangs over the dinner and conversation: “I have been calling it a family thriller. It makes me laugh.”

Cronenberg cranks up the unease in the opening sequence, in which a government crew tends to a ghastly task under a too-bright sun, scored with a way too-cheerful song — Trooper’s Here for a Good Time (Not a Long Time). The film reveals that the world has agreed that each country will commit to decreasing its population by 20 per cent to curb the devastating effects of climate change. A grim public campaign encourages people (and particularly poor people of colour) to submit to euthanasia so their children can have a shot at a better life. Four adult siblings are summoned to dinner by their wealthy and influential patriarch, Charles York (Peter Gallagher). Over the lavish meal, he announces that he and his wife have decided to enlist in the program, but there is a secret clause in the program that leads to a tense night for the siblings.

While the film indulges in plenty of genre-specific violence, the real horror on display is in the toxic dynamic between the siblings as well as how they have internalized the belief that certain people’s lives are more valuable than others. Cronenberg and screenwriter Michael Sparaga balance the political and the personal deftly, putting their extreme example of sibling rivalry within the context of a plausible and frighteningly divided society.

“Everyone has the responsibility to educate themselves on what’s going on in the world,” she says, “but I would not call myself a climate change expert, so I wanted to present the film as a satirical look at one direction that this could all go in.”

And Humane is often funny, thanks in no small part to the performances by Jay Baruchel    and Emily Hampshire as the two eldest (and most cutthroat) siblings. Their success and selfishness are contrasted by the two youngest, and most fragile, siblings, played with vulnerability by Sebastian Chacon and Alanna Bale. Cronenberg grew up with siblings (and also a very influential father), but she didn’t exactly draw from her personal life for the production.

“I think Michael [Sparaga] was a little bit inspired by some of his fantasies about sibling life growing up. But we’re both very close with our families.” But her family did allow her to understand the characters even more. “I wanted it to feel like it was not going to just be that easy for these characters to attack their sibling. I put myself in their shoes.”

Humane comes at the tail end of a rocky time in the film industry. After COVID, a strike and the massive shifts brought on by streaming, it is a difficult landscape for a first-time director to navigate. But Cronenberg, who has worked on sets as a still photographer for a decade, is optimistic.

“I believe that the Canadian film industry has such a strong influence and incredibly intelligent members. And I think that it’s only going to get better and better.” But she also suggests that the strength of Canada’s film industry is, in part, how well it adapts to an international market. “I love that different provinces and different Indigenous stories are being represented in film; it’s so wonderful to be able to share and tell these stories. But Humane is a thriller that could take place anywhere.” This universality is one thing she shares with her father’s work: “My dad is a great example of someone who has made a lot of Canadian films, which have nothing Canadian feeling about them.”

In Humane, Cronenberg’s direction is effective because of its restraint, even when chaos ultimately breaks out, letting the horrifying story unfurl slowly and giving ample space for the performers to shine (a particular standout is Enrico Colantoni as a disarmingly cheerful, but deeply sinister,  government contractor named Bob). This respect for the skills of her team was built into the process of making the film: “I wanted everybody to feel comfortable and trust that I knew what I was doing — that I had a vision, even if I didn’t always feel that I knew what I was doing.” Humane — with its careful pacing, play with genre and frightening relevancy — is proof that Cronenberg absolutely knows what she’s doing.