If you’ve paid attention to anything I’ve written on this site, you know that I’m really bad at keeping up with modern horror releases. It’s not that I don’t like the genre, to be sure (I write for this site, don’t I?), just that nothing has really captured my interest of late. Then, a couple of months ago, I was reading one of the unavoidable “best ______ of 2016” lists talking about movies that no one saw. There was a little flick on there titled Green Room that touted Patrick Stewart as a grizzled neo-Nazi, featuring Anton Yelchin (RIP, Chekhov) and Alia Shawkat (Cousin Maeby from Arrested Development) as members of the punk band that cross him and his goons. I swear to god, I’m part way turgid just giving the elevator pitch.
Anyhow, I’ve been wanting to write about this movie for a while now, but couldn’t come up with any kind of angle other than “zomg watch this damn movie it’s srsly so good uguyz”. While bemoaning this to Danny at a recent gathering we both attended, he wondered if it could be considered horror in the first place, or if it was more of a thriller. The fuckin lightbulb snapped on, and here we are. So, I am going to do my best to convince our dear readership that this film has earned a place here in the blog. Join me on the ride, won’t you?
Our story opens on a group of young punks (like, in a punk band called The Ain’t Rights, not “get off my lawn ya punks”) touring out of their van through the rural Pacific Northwest. They’re supposed to play a gig after a disappointing daytime diner show (we all went to those, right?), but it falls through. Their local DJ buddy lands them a gig through his cousin, advises them to “maybe not talk politics”, and the crew sets off. They arrive, and quickly realize that this is a backwoods bar in the middle of the forests of bumblefuck, Oregon inhabited exclusively by sieg-heil-ing skinheads. They do the most punk-rock thing ever and open their set with a cover of “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” by Dead Kennedys. They somehow avoid getting their asses beaten, finish their set, and head out. [Yelchin] realizes he left his phone charger in the titular green room, and opens the door to find someone in the immediate aftermath of having the living shit murdered out of them. This precipitates a standoff that galvanizes the rest of the movie. The Nazis would prefer that no one know about the murder and clandestine heroin operation at the club, and the band would prefer to leave in a decidedly un-murdered state. OK, I think that’s all the summary we need here, let’s move on.
To me, what makes this film a horror flick is not one single element, but rather something of a grand confluence of elements. Any single one doesn’t do the trick, but throw those babies in a crockpot, steal some cheese from craft services, and baby you got a stew goin’. A stew that’ll make your sphincter sore from all of the clenching.
First off, we have the setting: When you hear about the Pacific Northwest, you probably immediately start thinking of places like Portland and Seattle, where the clothes come from grass-fed hemp and all of the software programmers are free-range. Step outside those big metropolises, and you are probably going to find yourself in the middle of spooky scary woods. I’m writing this in Colorado, but I lived in Oregon for a few years and one thing that has stuck with me is how much more brain-boilingly massive their trees are (on account of being at sea level in a state where the weather on any given day is an oppressive drizzle at minimum). You feel positively dwarfed, and that is something this movie uses to its advantage. The club is surrounded on all sides by massive PNW trees, and a healthy dose of aerial exterior shots really hammer home that the poor fucks in The Ain’t Rights are just insignificant specks, wholly out of their depth in an all-encompassing, humbling swath of nature that could not possibly give less of a shit about them. Like an all-natural Silent Hill.
Next up, there’s the overall conceptual scale. The Ain’t Rights are, as mentioned previously, strangers in a very strange land. We see them siphoning gas from parked cars, playing their shitty diner gig, and taking their pay of like, $20 for their shows. They are small-time and single-minded: make enough cash to get to the next stop, play show, repeat. They then get dropped into a perverted version of their reality, with all the right punk rock building blocks, but arranged into the shape of a swastika made out of heroin syringes. I would say that you don’t really have any clue what precisely is happening until about 2/3 of the way through the movie, and that lets you share the visceral terror that is so well portrayed by the cast. They know they’ve found something bad, but they don’t really get the “why” of it until a few of their number have already been killed or mutilated. Keeping us in the dark as to the “why” lets us share in that frantic fight or flight energy, and the movie does it superbly.
This is a nice way to segue into my last point. As I’ve opined before, a horror movie is nothing without a suitable bad guy at the forefront. I know that this site garners a goodly number of us depraved misanthropes, but I’m really hoping that the Nazi demographic is one that is not heavily represented. We all know that there are still Nazi shitbags in this day and age, but I’m willing to bet that none of us can really get inside their heads and know what makes them tick. I hope not, anyway. I mean, I’m all for understanding different viewpoints, but I’m going to take a controversial stance and say fuck Nazis.
OK, I’m getting off track here: Think back on Halloween for a second. Before those movies went completely fucking tits up (probably around the time that they made one that in no way featured Michael Myers and thought that was an ok thing to do), the thing that made them scary was that you didn’t know why Myers was murdering the shit out of these people. A killer with no discernable motive is less predictable, and therefore more innately terrifying. It is all the more effective when (as I mentioned above) you touch on elements that have recognizable pieces, but assemble into a foreign whole. The Nazi/punk dichotomy is one element of this. See also the almost paternal concern Darcy (Patrick Stewart) takes over protecting the club and its operations, which lies completely at odds with the end goal of killing the fuck out of some twenty-something nobodies. A little over halfway through the film, Darcy trains vicious attack dogs on the group, once again firmly inverting the trope of “man’s best friend”. Vicious dogs are something that is surprisingly underused (and often badly, when they are), and Green Room uses this to up the stakes in a marvelous way, right around the time you think everything is going to be alright.
Like I said, any one of these elements taken by themselves would simply make for a tense experience. But this film relies on perversions of the world that we know, taken to psychotic extremes, keeping us tense, afraid, and in the dark as we mumble silent prayers that the Ain’t Rights can make it to play another gig. If this kind of experience can’t be considered part of the horror pantheon, I don’t know that I want to live on this planet anymore.